Monday, March 1, 2010


The most interesting development at the moment in genetic research is epigenetics. This is the study of those proteins that determine which genes get switched on, when, under what circumstances, and how often. After all, your house may contain elaborate lighting, but if nobody ever flips the wall switch, it doesn't affect you. Neither does all that hard wiring for the electric chair you're sitting in.

Epigenetics explains why two identical twins, with the exact same genome, can have different finger prints, personalities, and even allergies. Somewhere in the fetal development, or even later, different genes were activated or silenced. Scientists are hot in pursuit of how this happens.

From a philosophical point of view, epigenetics is huge. It loosens the stranglehold thinking of some biologists, that your genome is your inevitable fate. It also has tremendous fictional possibilities. Unlike your genome, which is fixed at the moment sperm penetrates egg, the expression of your genes remains fluid throughout your life. Drugs are currently being developed to try to silence those genes that contribute to the growth of tumors. If that effort succeeds, then theoretically any genes you possess could be either silenced or activated.

When I'm finished with my current project, I plan to explore this idea through science fiction. It's almost the antithesis of Huxley's BRAVE NEW WORLD. You are not locked in by your societally engineered genome -- there is a back door, an escape hatch. You can be more than the you which exists right now -- without abandoning that particular you. What could be more exciting? And unlike the actual scientists, I don't have to figure out how to do it: I merely have to state that the brilliant scientists have done so.

God, I love my job.


Kendall said...

Hehehe. I love your job, too (vicariously).

I'm intrigued by what you'll do with epigenetics....

Unknown said...

Hello Nancy,

I’ve been an avid reader of your stories (and an avid SF reader for over 40 years) since first reading your novella "Beggars in Spain" in Gardner Dozois’s Year’s Best collection a few years ago. Also, thanks to the love of my dear wife I now have a signed copy of the novella published by Axolotl Press, naked baby cover and all! Your juxtaposition in the Sleepless universe of practically unlimited energy with the applications and affects of gene-mod technologies caused your stories to become more alive and relevant to this long-time SF reader.

I’ve been lurking your blog for some time, and decided to post my first comment after reading your blog on epigenetics, coincidentally on the same day I ran across the announcement by Bloom Energy of their break-through fuel cell technology which claims to holds a promise of lower-cost distributed energy and freedom from the “grid”.

Each day it appears the probability of the future resembling the Sleepless universe increases by a tiny fraction.

Anyway, it was just a good excuse to say “Thanks” for the thought-provoking stories, and occasionally sleepless nights due to those provoked thoughts.

Phillip in FL

Nancy Kress said...

Thank you, Phillip, for your nice comments.

Rebecca Flys said...

That opens up a lot of possibilities doesn't it... Shut off the gene for my degenerative disks, my daughter's autoimmune disorder, uveitis, my husband's hand birth-defect, and my family would be totally different now.

Our health care bills would be cut in half...

If you could shut off cavities in the kids teeth, bills would be 2/3rd less!

Oh and could you make my hair stay the light blond it was when I was about 5, and make my husband's hair never fall out?

So much fun you will have thinking and researching!

George & Jo Anne said...

I love your BLOG and feel similar to you about epigenetics. I hope scientists will use it to find causes ,like what foods or social behaviors do tend to cause what diseases and not just new drugs. I have a BLOG on epigenetics at please visit mine.