CJG Blog

Center for Jewish Genetics blog

What Is Epigenetics?

 Permanent link


The human genome has always been understood as the most basic code that defines who we are. Our genes are a set of unchangeable instructions – but what if there was a way to alter how these instructions were read? The growing field of epigenetics addresses this idea that there can be variations in how genes are expressed.

Epigenetics is the study of biological modifications that change how our genes are expressed without altering the actual genetic code. At its simplest, epigenetics looks at how environmental and behavioral factors – things like diet, exercise, and stress – influence not only our health but also the health of our children and future generations. Similarly, our parents’ and grandparents’ habits may have changed how the genes they passed on to us are displayed.  For example, some epigenetic mechanisms silence or activate genes, which can lead to certain genetic diseases.

Several studies in the last decade have advanced our understanding of epigenetics and the potential consequences (or benefits) of some behaviors and health indicators. In one study, mice whose mothers spent more time licking and nursing them as babies were shown to be less anxious than mice who did not receive maternal grooming. Upon closer examination, this trend was shown to be linked to epigenetics. Mice who received maternal grooming when they were young had acquired molecular level modifications that silenced genes related to stress response. Another study demonstrated that pregnant mice who were fed a methyl-rich diet during pregnancy gave birth to healthier babies with darker colored fur. Mice who were given a low-methyl diet gave birth to offspring with lighter pigmentation who were more prone to obesity as they grew up. Again, these traits occurred because certain genes were silenced based on the diet the pregnant mice were fed. This study was particularly interesting because is showed that maternal diet can have an effect on the way genes are expressed in their offspring.  

Studies about epigenetics reveal important insight into how external factors can influence our genes. Even though we are born with a fixed genetic code, our environment and behavior may impact the way our genes are expressed. Does this mean we can do things to actively change our genetic "fate"? Right now, the answer is no. There is still a lot to learn about epigenetics and how our actions effects our genetic code, as well as gene expression in future generations. This will certainly be an interesting field as new information unfolds! 


Dolinoy, D. C. (2008). The agouti mouse model: an epigenetic biosensor for nutritional and environmental alterations on the fetal epigenome. Nutrition Reviews66(Suppl 1), S7–11. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1753-4887.2008.00056.x

Gudsnuk, K., & Champagne, F. A. (2012). Epigenetic Influence of Stress and the Social Environment. ILAR Journal53(3-4), 279–288. http://doi.org/10.1093/ilar.53.3-4.279

Weinhold, B. (2006). Epigenetics: The Science of Change. Environmental Health Perspectives114(3), A160–A167.

Photo credit:
Christoph Bock, Max Planck Institute for Informatics (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0(http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons


Health Literacy: Critical for Disease Prevention in the Era of Genetics and Genomics

 Permanent link

There's no doubt about it: Health information can be confusing and, sometimes, downright overwhelming – even under the best of circumstances. And too often, when we’re trying to understand medical terminology and make decisions about our care, we’re already in a vulnerable state.

Incredible scientific and technological advances in recent years have given us the ability to prevent, diagnose, and treat more health conditions than ever before. Genetic technology allows us to sequence a person’s genome quickly (and relatively affordably) and genetic testing is becoming more widespread. There’s an abundance of information for healthcare professionals to communicate and for patients to process. As a result, health literacy is an increasingly critical concept.

What is health literacy?

"Health literacy has been defined as the degree to which individuals can obtain, process and understand the basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions."[1]  It encompasses a variety of skills, including:

  • General literacy
  • Level of experience with the healthcare system
  • Cultural and linguistic factors
  • An understanding of numeracy (mathematical concepts & their application, an essential part of risk communication in genetics)

Health literacy is the single best predictor of an individual’s health status, even more important than age, income, employment status, educational level or racial/ethnic group.[2] According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (2003) about 36% of US adults have limited health literacy and have on average increased incidence of chronic illness, lower utilization of preventive health services and poorer self-reported health.[3] Reaching individuals with limited health literacy with understandable and culturally competent information about genomics will be critical for disease prevention and treatment approaches targeting populations with the greatest health needs.[4]

Even well-educated individuals with high general literacy can feel overwhelmed having to navigate complex medical jargon. Emotional factors can pose additional barriers to understanding when the patient might ordinarily be able to understand the words and concepts being presented.

Genetic counselors can help. They are trained to assess health literacy and communicate complex information to assist patients in making informed decisions. Just a few of the many topics they cover include: family health history; the role of genes in birth defects; inherited recessive conditions; and how genes and other factors contribute to heart disease, diabetes, cancer and other disorders.

As genetic technology advances –  making use of genetic tests to screen, diagnose and treat disease –  genetics professionals in clinical and public health practice will increasingly be called upon to translate genetic and genomic information to individuals, families and the general public in order to improve the health all Americans.

[1] Lea, D.H., Kaphingst, K.A., Bowen, D., Lipkus, I., Hadley, D.W., Communicating Genetic and Genomic Information: Health Literacy and Numeracy Considerations, Public Health Genomics, 2011, Jul;14(4-5): 279 – 289.

[2]Ibid., pg.1

[3]Lea, D.H., Kaphingst, K.A., Bowen, D., Lipkus, I., Hadley, D.W., Communicating Genetic and Genomic Information: Health Literacy and Numeracy Considerations, Public Health Genomics, 2011, Jul;14(4-5): pg. 280

[4] Ibid., pg.280

Celebrate Mom By Asking About Her Health

 Permanent link

Our moms are our first caretakers. From the time we’re born – and even well before then – they do everything in their power to ensure we’re healthy and happy. When we fall, they pick us back up. They bandage our wounds, heal our sore throats and take us to the doctor for factors beyond their control. Because of all this, your mom probably knows your health history. Mother’s Day is the perfect time to learn hers (and the rest of the family’s too)!

Understanding your family health history can help you identify risks – and, if necessary, take steps to reduce that risk. The U.S. Surgeon General recommends starting with the following questions:

Personal Questions:

  • Do you have any chronic illnesses, such as heart disease or diabetes?
  • Have you had any serious illnesses, such as cancer or stroke?
  • If so, how old were you when you developed these illnesses?
  • Did you have any difficulties with pregnancy?  

Family Questions:              

  • What is our family’s ancestry? What country did we come from?
  • Did our late grandparents have any illnesses?
  • How old were they when they died? What was their cause of death?

You can use the Surgeon General’s digital Family Health Portrait tool to record the answers and even share them with other family members and/or your healthcare provider: familyhistory.hhs.gov.   

This Mother’s Day, celebrate Mom by asking about her health. While these are sometimes difficult questions to ask, having a conversation about your family’s medical history has the power to help both of you! 

Want more information? The Norton & Elaine Sarnoff Center for Jewish Genetics can provide resources and tools to help you start a conversation about family health history. A genetic counselor is available to answer any questions that may arise along the way.


Affordable, Accessible Genetic Screening in Illinois

Our affordable, accessible carrier screening program uses advanced technology to provide comprehensive screening for Jewish and interfaith couples. Visit our Get Screened page to learn more and register.


Do You Know What's In Your Genes?

What is the most valuable gift you can give to your family? The gift of good health! There are many health conditions that run in families. Knowing your family health history can alert you to the potential risk for a variety of genetic disorders . Talk to your relatives for warning signs and assess your risk for hereditary cancers.

Did you know: Ashkenazi Jews are 10 TIMES more likely to have BRCA mutations, which significantly increases lifetime risks for hereditary cancers, so what does this heightened risk mean for you? Click here to learn more .