What is the difference between Genetic Testing and Epigenetic Testing?
Genetics and epigenetics share a root word, genetics. However, the information that is gleaned from each can be very different.
Background on genetics and epigenetics.
Starting from the top, every living organism has DNA. DNA is composed of 4 nitrogenous base pairs, adenine, guanine, thymine, and cytosine. These are abbreviated A, G, T, and C. The order of these base pairs is what makes up the code that tells our cells what to do. This is where genetics and epigenetics differ. Genetics is the study of this code and how it's passed down from generation to generation.
When the genetic code has a mistake, it sometimes causes diseases. Mistakes and errors can be inherited or occur throughout an organisms lifetime. Diseases caused by a mutation to the genetic code are called genetic disorders or genetic diseases. On the other hand, the environment can case a mutation to occur in the DNA sequence which then can have consequences for health.
Epigenetics, on the other hand, is the study of how the environment can affect this code. There are several different molecules interacting with DNA, the way these molecules interact and affect DNA can be referred to as epigenetic mechanisms.
These epigenetic mechanisms help determine how the DNA code will be read. One of these mechanisms is DNA methylation which is when a methyl group is added to the DNA molecule. Methyl groups can play different roles when it comes to gene expression depending on where they are located within genes, for example, we often associate methyl groups in the promoter region of genes to correlated to genes being turned off. Other epigenetic mechanisms include histone modifications and micro RNAs, among other things… all of which further affect gene expression.
Epigenetics and the environment... and why you should care.
The epigenetic mechanisms described above change with each new environmental encounter an organism has. Environmental encounters are any and everything, from the food and water you consume to the toxic chemicals found in floor cleaners. These epigenetic changes that occur with changing environments is why epigenetics is so important: it can help us understand how the environment affects our genes and more importantly our health. For example, if we know that a certain environmental factor (ex. smoking or being exposed to smoking) can cause epigenetic changes, we can then study how those changes affect an individual's health (i.e. lead to lung cancer).
In fact, one of the most powerful things about these epigenetic markers, is the role they play in the aging process of animals. We can even use these markers to actually estimate how old an animal is (chronological age- EpiPaws Age Test for Dogs and Cats). Markers that correlate to age can also help us measure and understand the health status of an animal, we call this biological age- how old particular tissues within the body look and we are finding that these markers may be the secret to youth and longevity.
Pretty cool huh? Now lean in, here’s the best part:
If we can identify epigenetic changes linked to the development of certain diseases, we can then start to find ways to prevent the development of diseases, diagnose diseases earlier, and develop new more effective treatments. This is how we can help people and their pets stay healthy longer.
Zooming back out: So What does genetics vs epigenetics tell us?
In a nutshell, we use genetics to identify genetic diseases (diseases linked to faulty DNA codes) and to identify the risk of developing certain diseases. Good to know and helps with being proactive with health. If you know your high risk for breast cancer, you don't skip out on breast cancer screening.
With epigenetics, we can also predict the risk of developing diseases like genetics (accelerated aging = higher likelihood of disease development), but we can go a step further… It has the potential to give a "real-time" health evaluation of the individual.
This is especially important for those who may not have any symptoms of a disease but could be at high risk for developing one. It also has the potential to help us tailor treatments to the individual, rather than using a "one size fits all" approach.
It can make proactive care easier and more effective as we study how the environment and the world around us (food, exercise, stressors, toxins, etc) affects our health. With Epigenetics, it's possible to learn how to avoid disease with new precision never seen before.