Aristotle and Christie Brinkley have something in common.
No, not their noses, although there is perhaps a slight familial resemblance. No, it’s something intellectual, and something so profound and fundamental to our understanding of biology and genetics and nasal inheritance, and all that. Who would have guessed that these two are like thought twins separated at birth?
Let me expound.
A dear friend of mine, who is aware that Dr. John and I are blogging about skin care, asked me to comment on Christie Brinkley’s new skin care line based on “active epigenetic technology.” If you’re not familiar with the term epigenetics, it includes changes in gene expression, or phenotype, caused by mechanisms other than changes in the underlying DNA sequence. In other words, the blueprint has not been altered yet the end product that the DNA is coding for is changed. Interestingly, the changes may sometimes be passed on to subsequent generations.
The development and maintenance of an organism is orchestrated by a set of chemical reactions that switch parts of the genome off and on at strategic times and locations. The genome dynamically responds to the environment. Stress, diet, behavior, toxins and other factors activate chemical switches that regulate gene expression. So In that sense it could be argued that anything and everything can have potential epigenetic impact. And therein may be the crux of this particular matter.
Epigenetics have been known to play a significant role in normal development as well as in many human diseases such as cancer, heart and mental disorders, cognitive dysfunction, reproductive, respiratory, autoimmune, and neurobehavioral diseases (Feinberg et al., 2002; Jiang et al ., 2004). Recent evidence suggests that some people may be able to blame being obese on their mother or grandmother (and not just being “big boned” or having a “glandular disorder”). Studies conducted on mice have revealed that a mother’s diet during gestation may alter her offspring’s epigenome, affecting their propensity towards obesity later in life (Gramza, 2008).
Environment affects inheritance
A couple other examples will illustrate the concept. The first is a familiar biologic model to those who studied genetics in college – our old friend Drosophila melanogaster, the common fruit fly.
One particular laboratory strain of fruit fly has white eyes. If the temperature surrounding the embryos, which are normally nurtured at 25 degrees Celsius, is briefly raised to 37 degrees Celsius, the flies will hatch with red eyes. If these flies are again cross bred, the following generations are partly red-eyed – without any further temperature treatment – even though only white-eyed flies are expected according to the rules of genetics.
With faces like these, only their mothers could love them, but these are the flies with white and now red eyes.
An unfortunate human example of epigenetics is from a couple generations ago. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s it was recognized there was increased incidence of vaginal cancer in women whose mothers had been prescribed stilbesterol during their pregnancies in the 1940’s and early 1950’s. It took more than two decades for that association to become apparent so epigenetics can have both immediate and delayed effects. Of course, in this case “immediate” is solely because a fruit fly generation is only 10 days long.
Other epigenetic effects
Studies of mother infant relationships in animal models (e.g. monkeys and rats) have shown that maternal bonding and grooming of infants can have life-long effects in CNS neurotransmitter expression and hence behavior of their offspring. Certain parts of the brain are affected by very early experiences and these phenomena become “hard wired” into the brain’s neuro-circuitry even though no DNA has been altered. Lifelong mood and reactions to environmental stressors are good examples of how the organism can be affected. Even though this may represent a change in “expression” of DNA, there is not an inheritable trait involved. Nutritional and toxic exposures are factors that may have epigenetic impact. Such associations are not easily confirmed and meet the threshold of being convincing bona fide epigenetic inheritance only after the 4th generation has been affected.
With smoking, three generations at once are exposed to the same environmental conditions (diet, toxins, hormones, etc.). In order to provide a convincing case for epigenetic inheritance, an epigenetic change must be observed in the 4th generation.
The clearest case of epigenetics at work
One needs look no further than the garden to see the most dramatic examples. The exact same DNA can result in extraordinarily different results and morphologies based on influencing factors at work at the genetic and molecular level. The caterpillar that becomes the pupa that becomes the butterfly has precisely the same DNA throughout all stages of life yet epigenetic influences regulate how that DNA manifests in cells and tissues.
So, epigenetics includes any factor that in any way affects the genetic expression of DNA, but not the DNA itself. Because the translation of genetic information into end products (cells, tissues, fluids, secreted hormones, etc.) is highly complex and includes countless molecular interactions in exquisitely choreographed cascades of sequential steps, there are plenty of places where something can be influenced – or conceivably go awry. What is remarkable is that everything goes right so much of the time. We know epigenetic influences are real even though impossible or difficult to identify or assess in real time.
OK, what has this got to do with skin care? (We’ll get to Aristotle later.)
If it is difficult if not impossible to identify most factors that influence DNA expression, what can we do to affect the process in a beneficial way, particularly when it comes to making the DNA in our skin stand up, take notice, and act properly?
Excellent question and one without an obvious answer. (And this is why I am so amazed that Ms. Brinkley has figured this out.)
Not one to be flummoxed or bamboozled easily, I decided to look at what the active ingredients in her “Active Epigenetic Technology” are and drill down to see if maybe my copy of Epigenetics for Dummies might have omitted something important.
Laminaria Digitata Extract (common sea kelp) – rich in proteins, vitamins, minerals (especially iodine) and lipids
Ergothioneine – a powerful antioxidant
Plankton Extract – plant based marine extract
“Plankton extract is a photolase enzyme that comes from algae that are constantly exposed to extreme levels of the sun’s ultraviolet radiation. The algae have developed a natural resistance mechanism that allows them to use the energy from sunlight to repair damage from UV radiation.”
Arabidopsis Thaliana Extract– repair enzyme (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arabidopsis_Thaliana)
“Arabidopsis was the first plant genome to be sequenced, and is a popular tool for understanding the molecular biology of many plant traits, including flower development and light sensing. It is now widely used for studying plant sciences, including genetics, evolution, population genetics, and plant development. It plays the role in plant biology that mice and fruit flies (Drosophila) play in animal biology. Although A. thaliana has little direct significance for agriculture, it has several traits that make it a useful model for understanding the genetic, cellular, and molecular biology of flowering plants. In 2005, scientists at Purdue University proposed that Arabidopsis possessed an alternative to previously known mechanisms of DNA repair, which one scientist called a “parallel path of inheritance”. It was observed in mutations of the HOTHEAD gene. Plants mutant in this gene exhibit organ fusion, and pollen can germinate on all plant surfaces, not just the stigma. After spending over a year eliminating simpler explanations, it was indicated that the plants “cached” versions of their ancestors’ genes going back at least four generations, and used these records as templates to correct the HOTHEAD mutation and other single nucleotide polymorphisms. The initial hypothesis proposed the record may beRNA-based. Since then, alternative models have been proposed which would explain the phenotype without requiring a new model of inheritance. More recently, the whole phenomenon is being challenged as a being a simple artifact of pollen contamination. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arabidopsis_Thaliana)
Limonium Narbonese Extract – perennial seaside plant
Micrococcus Lysate – natural DNA repair enzyme
“Micrococcus lysate is an endonuclease type enzyme extracted from ultraviolet resistant microflora that targets DNA damage.” (http://www.9to5nutrition.com/resources/research/Protect%20Your%20Skin.pdf)
Aminoguanidine and Decarboxy Carnosine HCI – a plant complex
Citrullus Vulgaris Fruit Extract – a watermelon extract
Each of these ingredients can be found in several other skin and hair care products.
For regular readers of BFT, you will notice a similarity between the arguments promulgated here to those used to support the use of botanical stem cells in skin care products. Paraphrasing and summarizing from my prior posts on BFT: “Gee, if those Swiss apples can resist wrinkling, and the edelweiss flower resist UV light, and the palm date deal with very hot temperature, then their stem cell MUST be able to do those things for the skin.” Yea, that sounds right.
What exactly does Ms. Brinkley claim is going on? I’ll let her explain.
“Epigenetics technology improves the skin’s natural renewal process by using these specific ingredients that work with the body’s natural rhythms to achieve greater results in repairing and reversing the signs of aging. The Epigenetic process is constantly interacting with our genes by continuously transmitting information that affects cellular function. Restoration, repair, nutrition and cellular division activities can all be impacted by negative Epigenetic interactions. However, by applying both the Daytime and Overnight Treatments specifically formulated to promote and restore positive Epigenetic gene interaction, the positive genetic markers are switched on and the negative markers are switched off. This amazing new science delivers younger, healthier and more radiant looking skin in just 14 days!”
Aside from simply asserting these ingredients positively influence epigenetics, there is nothing more. No evidence. No references. No high science. In fact, no science, period. Ms. Brinkley is invoking some very sophisticated theoretical concepts so one would think there should be some peer-reviewed studies or other references to support the hype. There are none.
Ms. Brinkley, BFT considers the scientific “theory” you espouse to be nonsense. We are chagrined to see technical jargon used that only a miniscule number of potential purchasers understand, which means all others less knowledgeable consumers are being shamefully manipulated in order to separate them from their money.
On the basis of what we just learned about epigenetics, isn’t it true that EVERY OTHER PRODUCT could conceivably make the same claims? BFT congratulates your marketing team for being clever enough to use a term that others have not yet stumbled upon, but that is not something we much admire.
Let’s be clear. BFT is a great proponent of free market capitalism, so launching a skin care beauty line is a laudable endeavor and we do wish you well. And, we are willing to be educated so will watch your website for those scientific journal articles to be posted soon.
So, what about that connection to Aristotle?
Aristotle is the third of a very famous trio of thinkers / teachers / students that also includes Socrates and Plato. Collectively, their philosophical musings had enormous impact on countless later generations of intellectual thought. No question about it, this remarkable philosopher from ancient Greece left behind some very impressive work, but on epigenetics, Aristotle was still off the mark.
In his defense, however, he was flying blind. His ideas were formulated more than two thousand years before Gregor Mendel sowed the first of the 29,000 pea plants that provided the scientific database upon which the entire field of genetics was founded. In fact, Aristotle was actually ruminating about epigenesis, a forerunner concept to epigenetics.
In his treatise, “On the Generation of Animals”, Aristotle postulated that animals developed through epigenesis, a progressive and ever more complex “unfolding” of an egg or seed. This was in stark and revolutionary contrast to the much more prevalent notion of his day of preformism, which was based on creationism which asserted that all animals (and plants) were created simultaneously by a supreme being (e.g. the Biblical book of Genesis) and that every egg or seed had a fully formed, albeit miniscule replica of the adult form that progressively grew ever larger. Aritstotle’s ideas were radical at the time and his science turned out to be entirely wrong in the long run. Nevertheless, his ideas were profound for his era and had there been the means to investigate with microscopes and chemical assays, he most likely would have gotten it right.
No so for Ms. Brinkley. But then again, that’s OK; none of us ever considered her a scientist anyway.
Which leads me to this proposal. If Christie promises to stop pretending to be a scientist, I promise never to aspire to be a swimsuit model or fashion icon. Fair enough? (I am just as qualified in modeling as she is in science, after all. Maybe I should get to the gym just in case…)