The Scars of Our Ancestor’s DNA

Digital illustration DNA structure in colour backgroundI read a super interesting article this week called “Grandma’s Experiences Leave a Mark on Your Genes” by Dan Hurley of Discover magazine and in the article, it talks about how our ancestor’s experiences, both positive and negative, have made their mark in our DNA. Scientists have experimented on rats and observed behaviors – such as how if humans handled the pups, the mothers began to groom their babies more and were therefore, more “hands on”.  Those pups would then turn around and be more “hands on” with their own brood later on.  But beyond mothering traits, when males rats who were “bullied” were mated with females, and even though the babies were never exposed to their father, the babies were highly prone to stress as opposed to those babies who were not fathered by bullied rats, indicating that the probability that the stress the father experienced passed on through his DNA to his pups.

Like silt deposited on the cogs of a finely tuned machine after the seawater of a tsunami recedes, our experiences, and those of our forebears, are never gone, even if they have been forgotten. They become a part of us, a molecular residue holding fast to our genetic scaffolding. The DNA remains the same, but psychological and behavioral tendencies are inherited. You might have inherited not just your grandmother’s knobby knees, but also her predisposition toward depression caused by the neglect she suffered as a newborn.

They have begun human studies now to examine the difference between people who committed suicide versus those who died suddenly from other means.  It’s positively fascinating for me to ponder this as I’ve talked about the dark secret in my family about the murder/suicide of my second great-grandparents and both their children later in their adulthood.  As my daughter and I both suffer from bouts of depression, sometimes quite severe and lengthy, I wonder if we don’t have those markers of epigenetic methylation in our brains from the Stewart/Archer ancestors present in our DNA.  I would love to look at my raw DNA data to find it.  Offhand, I do remember when I ran my data through Promethease that I had quite a few “bad” indicators for mental health concerns.  It is certainly something to consider as they make more progress with identifying the methylation levels through blood samples in living humans as opposed to sampling from the deceased.

The articles ends with something I’ve considered over the past couple of days:

…what if we could create a pill potent enough to wipe clean the epigenetic slate of all that history wrote? If such a pill could free the genes within your brain of the epigenetic detritus left by all the wars, the rapes, the abandonments and cheated childhoods of your ancestors, would you take it?

Would I?  I’m not entirely sure.  Isn’t their past, however good or bad, part of what makes me who I am today?  If I can, as the article says inherit my grandma’s “knobbly knees” as well as her pain, struggles and strive, would I want to “erase” her life experiences from mine?  As hard as depression can be to struggle with, sometimes it gives me great insight as I withdraw, crawl into myself and my brain quiets down for a bit.  Part of me always picks myself back up, dusts off and gets back on the horse again.  I’d like to think I inherited my resilience from my ancestors trials and tribulations.  I wouldn’t want to give that up for anything.  Would you?

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