Around 10 years ago, several scientific studies were published that suggested survivors of traumatic events and atrocities like the Holocaust or Dutch famine of 1944-45 passed down the biological stress of those experiences to their children.
The studies created quite a stir. The BBC produced a documentary and Time magazine featured the subject on their cover. The stunning implications were that DNA wasn’t the only mode of biological inheritance. Characteristics acquired through life experiences could be passed on down the generations.
We receive our complete complement of genes at conception, and this does not change throughout our lifetime. Scientists hypothesized that traumatic experiences were transmitted by chemical tags on genes called epigenetic marks. The phenomenon was labeled transgenerational epigenetic inheritance, and it suggested that our fates were determined by more than just our DNA.
Now that over 10 years have passed, scientists now know that transgenerational epigenetic inheritance in humans does not exist. It is found in plants and some mammals. It cannot be ruled out in humans primarily because it is difficult to rule out anything in science. However, no convincing evidence or physiological mechanism has been found.
One well-documented finding alone seems to present a towering obstacle to it: except in very rare genetic disorders, all epigenetic marks are erased from the genetic material of a human egg and sperm soon after their nuclei fuse during fertilization. “The [epigenetic] patterns are established anew in each generation,” says geneticist Bernhard Horsthemke of the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany.
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