Q: Peter, this interview covers genetics, karma, and the physical and mental health implications of recent genetic research. Before I ask a few questions, is there anything you’d like to say as an introduction to our discussion of genetics?
PVH: Yes. With science’s latest understanding of genetics, we are experiencing a phenomenon similar to the change in our understanding of how the brain functions. In the early 1980s most neuroscientists thought that by age 22, our brain stopped changing. Now we know the brain is very changeable, and that there are specific things we can do to change it in positive ways.
Our understanding of genetics is headed in a similar direction. Up until the early 1990s, we thought we couldn’t change our genetic make-up. We knew we could damage it, for example, by excessive exposure to x-rays, but the prevailing viewpoint was that we could not bring about positive changes in our genes.
We now understand there’s wide changeability in how genes function, and new hope for people with genetically-based diseases like diabetes, certain cancers, cardiovascular ailments, and mental health disorders.
DNA and the Human Genome Project
Q: I understand that in the field of genetics, the most important project in recent years was the Human Genome Project. Can you tell us a little about this project and what it accomplished?
PVH: Yes. The Human Genome Project, sponsored by the National Institute of Health and completed in 2002, was a 12-year herculean effort, involving more than 2000 scientists, to identify and “map” all the genes in a human being. The project identified each and every one of the millions of molecules that make up the human “genome” – all the chromosomes, genes, and related molecules.
Q: Can you explain exactly what the human “genome” is and how it differs, if at all, from our DNA?
PVH: Taken together, all our chromosomes, genes, and related molecules are known as our “genome,” but they are commonly referred to as our “DNA.”
Q: Are you saying, then, that “DNA” and “genome” are synonymous terms?
PVH: Yes. Scientifically it would be clearer if we said “genome,” but most people usually say “DNA” when referring to the genome.
Q: Is it true there are around 20,500 genes in the human genome?
PVH: Yes, and from those 20,500 genes, we end up with a 100 trillion body cells! Interestingly, only a portion of those 20,500 genes actually do any work that we have verified. We have a lot of genetic material that is fallow and, as yet, we don’t know why it’s there.
Karma: “the DNA of our soul?”
Q: An issue important to most devotees is the relationship between our genetic make-up and our karma. David Frawley, a leading Vedic astrologer, suggests that we think of our karma as “the DNA of our soul.”
PVH: Comparing karma to DNA is useful, but I think Paramhansa Yogananda or Swami Kriyananda would have put it differently and said that our DNA is the physical manifestation of our karma. In other words, we have the genetic material that best fits the karma we need to work out in this particular lifetime.
What is especially interesting is that the same behavior and methods that help us to mitigate difficult karma can also bring about helpful changes in the functioning of our genes. These kinds of behavior-induced genetic changes are the subject of a developing new field known as “epigenetics.”
Q: This is very encouraging. I will be asking you a number of questions about epigenetics later in this interview.
Important medical advances
Q: I understand that one of the main achievements of the Human Genome Project was the identification of genes that reflect predispositions to certain diseases. Is that correct?
PVH: Yes. As an example, we can now identify the gene which indicates a predisposition to certain female cancers, particularly ovarian and breast cancer. It’s known as the BRCA gene (pronounced “Bricka”). Science has also identified the single gene that causes hemochromatosis, a disease of the liver, commonly known as “iron overload.” We can also now directly test for the “genetic signature” for other diseases, although the tests are expensive.
Our new understanding of genetics has also enabled us to identify the most effective medications for various psychiatric disorders. Based on the patient’s genetics, we can now create a panel of medications that are most likely to work, and also identify those it would be best to avoid. In my medical practice we are now ordering these panels for our patients whenever they don’t respond well to standard medications.
Genetic information documenting a person’s risk of other diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and Alzheimer’s are also readily available, but the protocols are not routinely used because multiple genes can be involved, which would make the protocols very expensive. The cost will undoubtedly go down in time, and eventually a person will be able to carry his or her entire genetic history on a little flash drive. I don’t think we’re many years away from realizing that possibility.
Epigenetics: the overlap of karma and genetics
Q: What is the science of epigenetics?
PVH: Epigenetics is the study of why, in the course of an individual’s lifetime, certain genes are activated or turned on, while others are repressed or turned off. Diseases like asthma, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s can run in families, because the genes are heritable. But just because someone has a genetic predisposition to a certain illness doesn’t mean that those genes will necessarily be activated in his or her lifetime. All the siblings in a family may have inherited a gene for asthma, but it may well be that only one person in the family actually develops asthma.
We’ve already mentioned the BRCA gene which indicates a predisposition to certain kinds of female cancers. In one widely studied situation, 35 members of a family all inherited the gene, but not every family member developed cancer. So one of the questions explored in the field of epigenetics is this: why do certain genes get activated in some family members but not in others?
Q: What have we learned to date?
PVH: Research has shown that certain external influences such as diet, hormones, social environment, heavy metals, pesticides and other toxins can exert a permanent effect on whether a specific gene is activated or not. Similarly, maintaining a positive attitude, exercising regularly and meditating have all been shown to have beneficial effects on our genetic material.
Q: Are you saying that right living and a positive, healthful environment can influence whether a potentially harmful gene gets turned on, or possibly even turned off?
PVH: Yes. And, amazingly, the turned-off gene gets passed on to our offspring in that new more helpful state!
Q: Would you say, then, that our ability to bring about genetic changes depends on some, if not most, of the same factors that enable us to modify our karma?
PVH: Yes. Just as our karma is changeable, depending on our attitudes and environment, so also are our genetics. A person might have a genetic predisposition for asthma, but if he or she exercises regularly, does not smoke, and avoids potent allergens – he or she may not end up with asthma.
Similarly, those who fear they may carry genetic predispositions for illnesses such as heart disease or Alzheimer’s should take seriously the need for lifestyle changes, such as managing stress levels and avoiding high-risk factors like smoking and excessive drinking. Those lifestyle changes would also include positive practices such as exercising regularly and meditating, which have been shown to have a positive effect on our genetic material.
Q: What you are saying, then, is that by right living and positive environment we can turn a harmful gene off?
PVH: Yes. We are now able to turn off some of these unhelpful genes simply by changing lifestyle.
Q: I understand that there’s a great deal of epigenetic research on how lifestyle affects the genes that cause Type 2 diabetes?
PVH: Yes. Science is showing that epigenetics is of major significance for Type 2 diabetes. The research is helping people understand how they developed this condition, and includes anything new in how lifestyle affects it.
The dilemma is that at least 100 genes are probably involved in causing diabetes. What medical science is now able to do, however, is lower the risk of those genes expressing. Through lifestyle changes we can now make some of these genes turn off permanently, thus lowering someone’s risk for the disease.
NR: That’s a very important advance.
PVH: Yes, it is.
Behavioral traits: can we turn these genes off?
Q: We’ve learned through genetic research that not only are physical diseases heritable but so also are human behavioral traits such as alcoholism, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. Is there any research into how to lower the risk of these genes turning on and expressing?
PVH: Dr. Francis Collins, the head of the Human Genome Project, has actually written about this question. He said that although many human behavioral traits are heritable, because multiple genes are involved, no single gene is strongly predictive. Moreover, not only are multiple genes involved, but many non-genetic factors – environment, especially, childhood experiences, and individual free will – can have a major effect on whether the behavioral trait manifests in a person.
Thus, if one of our parents is bipolar, and we inherit those genes, there is an increased likelihood of us being bipolar. However, our childhood environment and experiences will have an important effect on whether or not those “bipolar” genes actually get turned on.
Another possible scenario is that as an adult, we may suddenly manifest a behavioral trait that our parents didn’t have. Our parents may have had the same genetic risks, but because of our upbringing and other factors, those genes were turned on in us.
Looking to the future
Q: What do you see as likely future developments in the area of genetics?
PVH: I think there will be better targeted treatments based on our improved understanding of how the genome actually functions. For example, we know that the ability of our genome to accurately reproduce itself every time our cells divide to make new cells has an impact on our quality and quantity of life.
As we age, our genetic material’s ability to replicate perfectly becomes increasingly impaired. This is one reason people tend to develop more physical and mental health problems as they grow older. If we’re living a very healthy lifestyle, there is a better chance that our genetic material will accurately reproduce itself as we make new cells.
Two, as discussed, there’s the growing new field of epigenetics, which is helping us understand how genes turn on and off, and how a good lifestyle can effect positive change in a gene’s function.
Three, we actually have some free will, some choice, in how we’re going to turn out as human beings. Our inherited DNA at birth is just our starting point. We know now that there are many genes that are reactive to our life experience. If we have unhelpful genes, we shouldn’t always consider ourselves permanently handicapped. It would be more accurate to see ourselves and our DNA patterns as a “work in progress.”
What we’ve learned from the Human Genome Project and subsequent discoveries is that we shouldn’t feel limited by our DNA, our genetic material. Here is yet another example that we have control over our destiny.