What makes us who we are?
What determines our personalities, our physical traits and our health?
For some people, the explanation is clear: biology is destiny. The answers to all our questions about what makes each person unique lies in the genetic code we were born with, and there is little we can do to change that. Other people believe that our environment and all the associated life experiences, starting with a person’s upbringing, are solely responsible for the person you become.
But likely closer to the truth is that we are shaped by a combination of both inheritable characteristics and the world we encounter. It is the complicated interaction of those factors that determines who we are, ranging from our personalities to our health status and what medical conditions we may develop over the lifespan.
From a psychological perspective, there is little doubt that a number of biological factors influence a person’s temperament and vulnerabilities for certain mental health disorders, but at the same time, a person’s environment, which includes parents, peers and schooling, all shape our psychological development.
And when you evaluate a person’s health status, looking only at the person’s DNA is not enough. External factors, such as stress, diet, physical activity and exposure to toxic agents, may play just as big a role. In fact, a person’s zip code may tell us more about a person’s health than his or her genetic code.
Nearly 15 years ago, scientists believed we were on the cusp of understanding all human diseases with the unraveling of the genetic code. Since the completion of the Human Genome Project, we have discovered that the causes of disease can only partly be explained by genetic mutations. One of the most exciting scientific advances to address the question of what other factors might be responsible for disease development is the field of epigenetics.
Epigenetics fundamentally changes how we approach the “nature vs. nurture” debate. Epigenetics posits that although we are all born with a genetic code that predisposes our health status, the environment we live in can modify how our genes are expressed, and those modifications can even be passed on to subsequent generations. It is a fascinating concept and one that gives us a new appreciation for the complexity of humankind.
In this issue of PHHP News, we describe the work of epigenetic researcher and epidemiologist Dr. Jinying Zhao who recently joined our college and the UF College of Medicine from Tulane University’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. An accomplished scientist whose current research is supported by more than $10 million in grant awards, Dr. Zhao is examining the epigenetic factors involved in some of the most serious and complex diseases, including Alzheimer’s, depression, diabetes, heart disease and obesity.
We are excited that Dr. Zhao has brought her expertise to UF, where collaboration with colleagues in epidemiology, biostatistics and with scientists from across several UF colleges and institutes, will allow her to advance her research. We believe work by Dr. Zhao and other talented UF faculty members will bring us a better and fuller understanding of the development of human health and disease.