Scientists once thought studies of inheritance and gene activity held the answers to most of medicine. But as they work to put information about the genome into practice, they are learning that there is much more to the story.
When geneticists first started to unravel the strands of the double helix and sort out the workings of DNA, genes seemed all powerful. Scientists thought studies of inheritance and gene activity held the answers to most of medicine, including diseases as complex as cancer and diabetes. But now, as they work to put information about the genome into practice, they are learning that there is much more to the story. They have begun to look more closely at small variations within genes, the regions nearby that manage genes, and the outside influences that can change the way our inherited DNA operates.
Genes usually do not act alone, geneticists now know. They have begun to sort out the importance of timing, the influence of other genes, and the gene-altering power of environmental factors from the air we breathe to the food we eat.
In the area of obesity, for instance, researchers have shifted away from a hunt for individual, very powerful genes that predispose people toward weight gain. They have stopped looking for a simple equation of the amount of food we eat and the energy we expend. Instead, our weight may reflect the biochemical interplay of our genes with diet, exercise, appetite, and more. Geneticists have begun looking at these types of interactions more closely through projects such as the National Institutes of Health Genes, Environment and Health Initiative.
Artist Martin Begaye (Navajo) uses altered images from advertising and pop culture to raise awareness of the role of junk food in the diabetes epidemic. For instance, on the distinctive soft drink emblem, he's replaced the words "Enjoy Coca-Cola" with "Enjoy Diabetes." Then there's "Fool-Aid," and "Supersized Angels." It's biting satire — funny and alarming.