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What genes remember

Many geneticists now think that the behaviour of our genes can be altered by experience—and even that these changes can be passed on to future generations. This finding may transform our understanding of inheritance and evolution

By Philip Hunter   May 2008

It has long been known that an organism’s fate is not determined by genes alone. This much we can tell by observing identical twins, who over time tend to diverge both physiologically (developing differences in, say, height and posture) and psychologically (exhibiting different personality traits and even, sometimes, sexual orientations). Despite most identical twins having similar diets and lifestyles, subtle cultural and environmental distinctions appear to alter their phenotype—the sum of their nature and nurture. In 1942, Conrad Waddington coined the term “epigenetics” to describe this idea that an organism’s experience may cause its genes to behave (or “express themselves”)…

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