Genes: Are They Important?

Why is it that Asians have a 25 times lower incidence of prostate cancer and a 10 times lower incidence of breast cancer than those of Western countries? Is it their genes?

Interestingly, when Asians migrate to America, their cancer risk increases dramatically. Why? Their environment changed. They adopt the typical American lifestyle. Similarly, if you uproot a plant from healthy soil, transfer it to poor quality soil, disease will manifest itself (e.g. black spots or wilting leaves). If genes were that big of a risk factor, cancer rates of Asian individuals would not significantly change simply by moving to another country. Genes are found to have a very small impact on cancer risk.

Published in the journal of Pharmaceutical Research, “Only 5–10% of all cancer cases can be attributed to genetic defects, whereas the remaining 90–95% have their roots in the environment and lifestyle.”

If anybody understands genetics, it’s Craig Venter, a leading scientist of the 21st century and one of the first to sequence the human genome. He has stated the following:

“Human biology is actually far more complicated than we imagine. Everybody talks about the genes that they received from their mother and father, for this trait or the other. But in reality, those genes have very little impact on life outcomes. Our biology is way too complicated for that and deals with hundreds of thousands of independent factors. Genes are absolutely not our fate. They can give us useful information about the increased risk of a disease, but in most cases they will not determine the actual cause of the disease, or the actual incidence of somebody getting it.”

Don’t assume disease is always inevitable. The factors Craig Venter is referring to are: environmental toxins, what you eat, drink, how you handle stress, how much you sleep and how much you move (or don’t). These are all signals that influence what genes are expressed. This is called “epigenetics”. Epigenetic research has shown that even the lifestyle/environment our mother or grandmother lived can influence what “tags” (methyl or acetyl groups) are placed on the genes of their child to determine whether these genes are activated or silenced.

Anand, P., Kunnumakkara, A. B., Sundaram, C., Harikumar, K. B., Tharakan, S. T., Lai, O. S., . . . Aggarwal, B. B. (2008). Cancer is a Preventable Disease that Requires Major Lifestyle Changes. Pharm Res Pharmaceutical Research, 25(9), 2200-2200. doi:10.1007/s11095-008-9690-4