Innovative Approaches: Insights on Epigenetics

09/11/2013 04:29 pm ET | Updated Nov 11, 2013

Like many, my personal heritage spans two continents: I am the proud product of Angolan civil servants and Swiss watchmakers. Admittedly, I have a conflicted view of time; and my family history has gifted me with a wide-reaching view of the world around me. If our past informs our future, then my destiny is global.

But what if it doesn't? What if innovation intersected the unending debate of nature versus nurture?

This is exactly what is happening as researchers unlock the secrets of epigenetics -- the study of heritable changes in gene function. Epigenetics has demonstrated that experience can influence the composition of the human genome. This means that how we interact with stress, hunger and other external factors can chemically alter our DNA. I am fascinated by epigenetics. Not just about how it can change the biological composition of future generations, but how I can impact my own genetic make-up, now... within my lifetime. In simple terms -- if I really want, I can reengineer myself during my lifetime and bestow it to the next generation.

A recent Economist overview noted that "the discovery that acquired characteristics can be inherited too is big news." Epigenetics holds remarkable potential to innovate individuals and societies. It also confirms my long-held belief in every individual's ability to change and make an impact on the future.

As a supporter of epigenetics field research, I recently met with Professor Isabelle Mansuy from the Brain Research Institute at the University of Zurich. Professor Mansuy's research focuses on epigenetics and complex brain function. During our discussion, she demonstrated the intersection between genetics and behavior.

One of the interesting outcomes Professor Mansuy and her team of researchers have uncovered is the animals that undergo early stress have a better understanding of time. As my own generational experience centers on the clock -- this insight is deeply personal. It is exciting to consider that my understanding of time is not only shaped by the generations that have gone before me but can also be influenced by the way I navigate the world.

This research has deeply personal implications, but it also has broad societal implications. When taken to scale, epigenetics has the potential to influence not just my children, but the destiny of all Africans. Imagine if we could reverse the impacts of maternal deprivation that slows cognitive development. Imagine if the stress of war could be recast so that instead of limiting Africa's potential, it could empower future generations. This is not just an exercise in biology -- it is the essence of human innovation and the more I learn, the more excited I am about its potential.