Environment alters DNA

WSJ reports ($) that the effect of a gene depends on the environment it’s exposed to. Several studies have shown, for example, that water-fleas will only grow hard-skull defenses if they are in waters with fish, that oak-tree caterpillars grow to resemble the food they eat, and that men with the “violence gene” only act violent if they were neglected or abused as children. My favorite example:

Last summer, Michael Meaney of McGill University, Montreal, and colleagues reported that a gene that shapes how fearful, jumpy and neurotic a rat is can be altered by how regularly its mother licks and grooms it. Maternal care changes the chemistry of a “neuroticism gene,” and the rat grows up to be mellow and curious. The genetic trait for neuroticism — deemed innate because scientists had found a gene “for” it — is reversible by environment.

I wonder how different working environments interact with our genes?


  1. Technically, the environment does not alter the DNA (the genotype, ie the As, Ts, Cs, and Gs), it changes the expression of the genes (the phenotype).

  2. I agree, though my use of the word ‘alter’ was a quote from the article. She does expand on that by using the term ‘expression’.

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