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A Changing Portrait Of DNA

By Mary Carmichael, Newsweek

10 December 2007: Four years ago, a Duke University biologist named Randy Jirtle began an elegant little experiment that would ultimately lead him to confront one of life\\'s biggest mysteries. He started with two groups of mice that gave birth to sets of identical babies carrying the same genes. The babies were raised the same way from birth. They should have looked alike but instead, they barely looked related. In the first group, the babies were overweight, prone to diabetes and cancer and covered in fur the color of rancid butter. The mice in the second group were beautiful: lean, healthy, brown. Same nature, same nurture, radically different outcomes. What was going on in there?

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The difference, it turned out, wasn\\'t due to the mice\\'s genetic code, nor was it due to the environment. It lay instead in a mechanism that was mediating between the two. A gene in the sickly yellow babies was making a disease-causing protein called Agouti, which also affects coat color. The brown babies had the same gene, but it wasn\\'t making much of anything. It had mostly stopped working. The brown babies\\' mothers had eaten a special diet during pregnancy: one rich in folic acid, which floods the body with tiny four-atom configurations called methyl groups. These methyl groups had infiltrated the growing brown mouse embryos and latched onto the flawed gene, shutting it down. This was the solution to the mystery: Jirtle had vividly illustrated why, at the biochemical level, the genetic sequence alone doesn\\'t always equal destiny. Four humble atoms had been enough to override a serious defect in the brown babies\\' genomes. And what was true of the mice turned out to be true of men: there is much more to our nature than the plans laid in the genetic code. CLICK HERE FOR REST OF STORY