Epigenetics affect how, when and whether genes are read by cells. By altering the physical structure of a DNA strand, for instance, genes can be turned on (expressed) or off (ignored by the cell). Countless environmental factors can affect specific gene expression. What a dog eats, where he lives, his sleeping habits, exercise and age all influence what genes are expressed and when. Simply stated, epigenetics make your dog unique; the next time someone asks you why your dog insists on carrying around a dirty old teddy bear, just say “epigenetics.”
Because epigenetics also affect whether a dog carrying a genetic disease risk factor develops the disease or not, the study of epigenetics may hold the biological explanation for many of the disease associations reported in the medical literature. For example, it is well documented that adults who were malnourished as children are more likely to struggle with obesity and heart disease. Researchers hypothesize that this association may be attributed to changes in the expression of insulin genes brought on by starvation. Understanding the mechanisms of disease is an important step in prevention and treatment.
Epigenetics in cancer research holds promise as well. Cancer cells leave a distinct epigenetic signature and researchers are working on identifying those signatures using blood tests. While this technology is still in its infancy, it could be a powerful method to identify the presence of cancer, its location, and its degree of malignancy earlier and less invasively than current methods. Medical science is advancing rapidly and we hope the priceless samples banked from your hero dogs will contribute to the development of life-saving treatments and diagnostics that are yet to be conceived.