Epigenetics Around the Web: Spinach, turnips likely won’t protect you from air pollution, and more

Screen Shot at AM

This week’s features: BBC’s poor decision to cover study claiming vitamin B protects against air pollution and experts join ELP in criticizing ‘precision insurance.’

I would doubt whether it gives a prediction of life expectancy … that is by itself accurate to any useful extent.

— John Greally, director of the Center for Epigenomics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine

Vitamin B protects against air pollution?

How can we minimize the health impact of air pollution? Invest in new clean burning technologies? The BBC says to eat more spinach.

According to the World Health Organization, 92 percent of the world’s population lives in places where air quality is below WHO standards. Air pollution is linked to numerous health maladies, such as cardiovascular diseases, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer. The WHO also reports that nearly 3 million deaths a year are linked to exposure to outdoor air pollution.

A recent article, titled “Vitamins may have ‘protective effect’ against air pollution” on the BBC site discussed this problem. The story centered around a February 2017 study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study, lead by Jia Zhong from Harvard School of Public Health, investigated epigenetic changes in immune cells that are linked to exposure to air pollution. The results showed that people who took vitamin B supplements were protected from these changes.

“I think that B vitamins are a likely hope that we can potentially utilize as an individualized treatment to complement the policy regulations to minimize the impacts of air pollution,” said Zhong.

However, there are several reasons to doubt these findings. First, of all the study was done on just ten people, a sample size that is far too small to make important conclusions. The individuals in the study were also exposed to levels of artificial pollution and even the authors admit the doses of vitamin B were excessive.

Screen Shot at AMThe study also examined epigenetic changes on mitochondrial DNA, a part of the cell that is important for producing cellular energy. However, mitochondrial epigenetics is a very poorly understood process and controversial topic. A recent study in Nature found that most studies of mitochondrial methylation may be completely unreliable.

To their credit, the BBC story, authored by environmental correspondent 

Experts join ELP in condemning life insurance company

In the March 6th Epigenetics Around the Web, I dissected a plan by the life insurance company GWG Life to use epigenetics data to determine people’s life expectancy. While there have been several studies that have found some correlations between changes in epigenetic marks and health, I don’t believe we know enough about what causes these changes to use it to make important decisions.

The company calls this ‘precision insurance.’ I called it a “serious miscarriage of science.” Needless to say, the company was not happy, tweeting in response:

Screen Shot at PM

Unfortunately, for GWG Life, I’m not alone in my disapproval. Numerous scientists and communicators took to Twitter to criticize the company. Cath Ennis, science writer whose recent book Introducing Epigenetics: A Graphic Guide, was profiled on ELP, was shocked:

Screen Shot at PM

Cheryl Keller Capone, molecular biologist at Penn State echoed my concerns:

Screen Shot at PM

John Greally, director of the Center for Epigenomics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, was the most critical calling it “grotesque:”

Screen Shot at PM

Greally also told STAT, “I would doubt whether it gives a prediction of life expectancy … that is by itself accurate to any useful extent.” Arguably the most damning comments are from Steve Horvath, UCLA epigeneticist, who developed the algorithm (often called the ‘epigenetic clock’) that GWG used to predict life expectancy and health. Horvath refused to endorse their decision to use his clock.

Trending on the Epigenetics Literacy Project

Should men be worried about their sperm? New York Times’ Nick Kristof says yes–but does science agree?

On March 12, New York Time’s columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote that men should be worried about their sperm health because of environmental toxins and endocrine disruptors. Geoffrey Kabat, cancer epidemiologist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, said that Kristof’s article is not supported by science.

Beyond mutations: How our view of cancer’s origin has evolved

Scientists used to think cancer was caused only by genetic mutations that were either inherited or caused by an environmental trigger such as smoking. But our understanding of cancer is evolving and now it appears that epigenetic changes can cause cancer too.

How one company is using epigenetics to build hardier crops

University of Nebraska epigeneticist Sally Mackenzie is a pioneer in epigenetics in agriculture. Her lab has been able to epigenetically improve plants—including soybeans, tomatoes and sorghum—which have shown increased yields and stress tolerance.

Nicholas Staropoli is the director of the Epigenetics Literacy ProjectHe has an M.A. in biology from DePaul University and a B.S. in biomedical sciences from Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @NickfrmBoston

Outbreak Daily Digest
Biotech Facts & Fallacies
Talking Biotech
Genetics Unzipped

Video: We can ‘finally’ grow GMOs—Nigerian farmer explains why developing countries need biotech crops

Nigerian farmer Patience Koku discusses the GMO crop trials she is conducting on her farm, and why growers can "rise ...
mag insects image superjumbo v

Disaster interrupted: Which farming system better preserves insect populations: Organic or conventional?

A three-year run of fragmentary Armageddon-like studies had primed the journalism pumps and settled the media framing about the future ...
dead bee desolate city

Are we facing an ‘Insect Apocalypse’ caused by ‘intensive, industrial’ farming and agricultural chemicals? The media say yes; Science says ‘no’

The media call it the “Insect Apocalypse”. In the past three years, the phrase has become an accepted truth of ...
cow global warming

Infographic: Cows cause climate change? Agriculture scientist says ‘belching bovines’ get too much blame

A recent interview by Caroline Stocks, a UK journalist who writes about food, agriculture and the environment, of air quality ...
organic hillside sweet corn x

Organic v conventional using GMOs: Which is the more sustainable farming?

Many consumers spend more for organic food to avoid genetically modified products in part because they believe that “industrial agriculture” ...
benjamin franklin x

Are most GMO safety studies funded by industry?

The assertion that biotech companies do the research and the government just signs off on it is false ...
gmo corn field x

Do GMO Bt (insect-resistant) crops pose a threat to human health or the environment?

Bt is a bacterium found organically in the soil. It is extremely effective in repelling or killing target insects but ...

Environmental Working Group: EWG challenges safety of GMOs, food pesticide residues

Known by some as the "Environmental Worrying Group," EWG lobbies for tighter GMO legislation and famously puts out annual "dirty dozen" list of fruits and ...
m hansen

Michael Hansen: Architect of Consumers Union ongoing anti-GMO campaign

Michael K. Hansen (born 1956) is thought by critics to be the prime mover behind the ongoing campaign against agricultural biotechnology at Consumer Reports. He is an ...
News on human & agricultural genetics and biotechnology delivered to your inbox.
Optional. Mail on special occasions.
Send this to a friend