Woman with baby in stroller

How much does our DNA determine the fate of our futures? And are there ways to prevent certain qualities hidden in our genes from ever taking hold? 

Questions like these are being tackled in libraries and local hubs throughout the area as rural communities host viewings of thought-provoking documentaries about early childhood. The movie is followed by a discussion of the film and is made possible by a collaboration between the the Childhood Development Council of Central New York, Inc., and Cornell Cooperative Extension. 

Through the program, the documentary “DNA Is Not our Destiny” will be shown Feb. 19. at 6 p.m. Newfield Public Library will host the event, dubbed the “DNA Cafe.” The film is part of the “Raising of America” series. 

“We chose it in part because it has a sense of hope,” said Jude Rose, child care planner/developer with the Child Development Council of Central New York, Inc., which serves Tompkins and Cortland County and has offices in Cortland and Ithaca. “Some of the other ones feel overwhelming.” 

“DNA isn’t the only thing that impacts us,” Rose explained. She said nutrition, toxins and stress in the family are just a few of the many factors that can play a huge role in how our DNA is actually expressed in our bodies. 

The film focuses on studies of rats and draws parallels between those findings and the ways in which genetics can be naturally altered in people. 

The rat pups in the study were classified as either yellow and obese or brown and thin. While all the rats shared the exact same DNA, they possessed one particular gene that controlled both color and body size and shape. It would either be turned off or on, depending on environmental factors. Pregnant rats fed diets rich in methyl groups found in fruits and vegetables were more likely to give birth to thin, brown pups, while mothers whose diets lacked that healthy component had yellow, obese pups. 

“So this showed, at least in a mouse model, that nutritional interventions could counteract the effects of toxicants,” says Dana Dolinoy, Environmental Epigenetics and Nutrition Lab, University of Michigan School of Public Health, in the film. 

“The genes we inherit are fixed for life,” the narrator of the film adds. “But there’s an entire network of molecules that influences which genes are expressed by making them active, or shutting them down, like a volume control or a dimmer switch. It’s called the epigenome.”

The film then looks at what happens to the rats after they are born. Scientists deprived some of the mother rats of the soft materials they would usually prefer when making their nests and replaced them with scratchy, uninviting materials. The mothers spent a lot of time moving the inferior materials around the cage, attempting to build a passable nest, and licked their pups far less than those who had ideal materials to work with. 

The implication is that the rat mothers who were unable to build a proper home were far more likely to neglect to lick their pups. Even though they still spent the same amount of time with their children as the other rats, stress caused them to lose interest in grooming their babies. 

The result was fearful pups who approached the world with less confidence and who were more prone to health problems than the rats who were regularly licked and groomed. It was found that those pups’ epigenetics had been changed; certain genes were “turned off,” and not expressed, making it impossible for them to calm down even when there was no danger present. But, when placed in an enriched “daycare setting” after weaning, the rats showed fewer lasting effects of being licked less, such as nervousness and obesity, later in life. 

“Assuring all children safe, stable and nurturing conditions could leave a profound biological imprint, increasing their chances for better mental and physical health and for more resilient and successful lives,”Michael Meaney, Sackler Program for Epigenetics & Psychobiology at McGill University, says in the documentary. “We know, for example, that when populations move into more favorable circumstances, when populations are freed somewhat from oppression, politically and socially, that they become healthier.”

That brings the film back around to persistent problems, like lack of early childcare and access to adequate nutrition, that plague families nationwide. Communities like Newfield are not immune to the challenges, Rose said. 

“[The movie] looks at stress in terms of childcare, getting sufficient work that pays enough, meeting bills and possibly being homeless or food insecure—those things that create stress for parents, and how that rolls over to children,” Rose said. “Each community has its own resources and networks of individuals who care for that community.”

At the Newfield screening, the viewers will break into small groups once the film concludes. 

“They’ll talk about their response to the film, things they know about that are happening in their lives, and ways to support the community overall as part of the buy-in in this—recognizing children and families’ health is important even to people who don’t have children,” said Rose. “Children grow up to be productive community members as well.”

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