University of Edinburgh – Institute of Genetics and Molecular Medicine
Epigenetics: ‘Karma’ and ‘Soul’ at the onset of the Genetic and Molecular Medicine
Can analogies be made for the ancient and metaphysical concepts of ‘Karma’ and ‘Soul’ in the age of molecular biology? Perhaps epigenetics holds the key? The Greek term epi- (επί-) means over, above, outer, or beyond. Epigenetics are therefore ‘above’ or ‘beyond’ genetics. Epigenetics, a concept proposed by Conrad Waddington during the time of World War II, has recently attracted a lot of attention in biology. After Watson and Crick helped to elucidate the genetic language, the question remained how DNA is read in our cells. At first epigenetics was believed to be all about chemical modifications of DNA and proteins in contact with DNA. James Watson proposed, “the major problem is chromatin… you can inherit something beyond the DNA sequence. That’s where the real excitement of genetics is now”. Chromatin refers to molecules of proteins and DNA formed together, which produce chromosomes. Thomas Jenuwein has pointed out: “The difference between genetics and epigenetics can probably be compared to the difference between writing and reading a book. Once a book is written, the text (the genes or DNA: stored information) will be the same in all the copies distributed to the interested audience. However, each individual reader of a given book may interpret the story slightly differently, with varying emotions and projections as they continue to unfold the chapters. In a very similar manner, epigenetics would allow different interpretations of a fixed template (genetic code) and result in different read-outs, dependent upon the variable conditions under which this template is interrogated.”
Karma is the sum of a person’s actions in this and previous states of existence, viewed as deciding their fate in future existences. In many religions, philosophical, and mythological traditions, the soul is the incorporeal, immortal essence of a living being. Over the last several decades, we have learned that genes direct and mold who we are in terms of things like physical traits, and our potential susceptibility to certain diseases. Yet, identical twins with exactly the same DNA, often exhibit different physical and health characteristics over time. Having identical DNA (identical instructions) does not lead to identical outcomes. Perhaps the way the DNA is read is what matters? This is precisely why different cells in different tissues in the body (which have the same DNA sequences) develop drastically differently – they have different epigenetics.
Epigenetics is still poorly understood, but in a broad sense may link unique human qualities to what traditionally is considered the “soul” or aspects of the personality. Ways in which our brains functioning are linked to epigenetic regulation. And here the analogy to the soul may come to play more apparently. Importantly what we consume in our food, drink, and air, also affects epigenetics to steer the fate or our cells, tissues, organisms, and ultimately societies. Therefore epigenetics is also proxy for karma in biology.