The Power of Methyl Groups

By Sunita Singh

A methyl group is one of the simplest molecules of organic chemistry. In my organic chemistry class sophomore year, this is one of the few concepts I could firmly grasp. As I went on to my Genetics and Heredity classes, I was especially interested on the profound effect methyl groups can have on gene expression. When I saw epigenetics was the topic of Grandma’s Experiences Leave a Mark on Your Genes, I was excited to revisit the subject.

The fact that the timing of an environmental stress can produce different methylation effects was especially interesting to me. The article discussed how the earlier a stressor occurs, the more profound effect it will have. A study that looked at the effect of economic stress in different areas of life showed that “genes were more than twice as likely to show methylation changes based on family income during early childhood versus economic status as adults”. I have read pieces of literature that have examples of traumatic childhood experiences that led to trouble in adulthood.

For example, in a memoir I read, How to Murder your Life by Cat Marnell, Marnell describes her spiral into prescription drug addiction. Her childhood was studded by a stressful home life highlighted with a fragile relationship with her parents, an abortion at 17, and struggles with academics. Her father also had anger issues, which he usually took out on Marnell, which added further stress to her childhood. It is not surprising that, as an adult, Marnell fell into a habit of self-sabotage and addiction. Using my knowledge of epigenetics, it can be hypothesized that during childhood Marnell’s genes became methylated as a protective measure against the stress. As an adult, this methylation continued to affect her and probably was a factor in causing her problematic emotional tendencies.

The introduction to Medical Apartheid by Harriett A. Washington also sparked a connection to epigenetics. Epigenetics can help explain the connection between African American exploitation in medicine and the prejudice some African Americans have about the medical field. Washington describes, “African Americans have been subjected to exploitative, abusive involuntary experimentation at a rate far higher than other ethnic groups” (pg.21). This experimentation was highly stressful on African Americans, and could impact further generations, as discussed in Grandma’s Experiences Leave a Mark on Your Genes. That article discussed how methylation effects are passed onto further generations and the article also discussed an experiment in which sons of depressed fathers were more prone to be hypersensitive to stress. This situation may be a factor behind black iatrophobia. The stress felt by exploited African Americans in the past may have caused methylation in genes that was passed onto further generations and may be an epigenetic cause behind the black iatrophobia today.

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