EPIGENETICS: A Funny Thing Happened … On The Way To Doing Something Else

In 1967, I was learning the technique of growing cells in plastic culture dishes at the University of Virginia. There are two fundamental steps in the process: Step 1) Creating a suspension of isolated single cells to be inoculated into a culture dish; and Step 2) Creating culture medium, the fluid environment in which cells grow.

Starting with embryonic muscle tissue, digestive enzymes are used to breakdown the connective tissue matrix of the muscle, which frees individual cells. In the enzyme-saline solution, the released free cells are spun down in a centrifuge tube forming a pellet at the bottom of tube. The cell pellet is resuspended in fresh culture medium and a sample is pipetted into each culture dish. The suspended cells settle down, attach to dish’s surface, and begin to grow. The cultured cells live in a fluid environment referred to as culture medium. Growth medium is the laboratory version of blood, the fluid environment that cells live in within the body.

The cells I was particularly interested in were myoblasts, muscle stem cells that exhibit a characteristic symmetrical spindle shape. A glass ring around is placed around a selected single myoblast stem cell in the culture dish. An enzyme solution introduced into the ring releases the myoblast cell from its attachment to culture dish surface. A pipette is used to suck-up the solution containing the single cell and introduce it into a new dish. The isolated cultured stem cell divides every 10 to 12 hours. After a week, the single stem cell can give rise to a population of about 30,000 genetically identical copies, clones, of the original stem cell.

Myoblast stem cells continue to divide in their growth phase. As the cells mature, they eventually fuse together, and differentiate into giant, long skeletal muscle fibers. The developmental fate of stem cells can be observed by using time-lapse cinematography. In addition, the anatomy and biochemistry of the differentiation of embryonic stem cells into specialized skeletal muscle tissues can provide vital information on the mechanics of muscle embryology, as well as offering insights into the nature of diseases, such as muscular dystrophy.

On the day I made my first cell cultures, my mentor Irwin Konigsberg, a distinguished pioneer in cell cloning technology, offered some advice, that later would later profoundly influence my career. Irv said, “When you check on the cells tomorrow, if they lose their spindle-shape and don’t look healthy, the problem lies in the culture medium (i.e., environment) and not in the cells.”

While a few stellate-looking cells always appeared in my cloned myoblast cultures, I basically ignored their presence. However, if an error was made in formulating the culture medium, all the cells in the culture dish would assume an altered shape (morphology). While the focus of my research was studying the differentiation of muscle, I often wondered if these irregular cells were actually “sick,” or if they were expressing a different developmental fate.

Many of the irregular cells had a large central vacuole that stored a mass of lipids. These cells were structurally and functionally identical to fat (adipose) cells. In contrast, the flattened stellate cells synthesized an extracellular matrix, which I chemically identified as the type of collagen matrix found in bone.

Through experimentation, I was able to formulate different culture medium variations that would consistently transform spindle-shaped myoblast stem cells into adipose or bone cells. The most exciting impact of these observations is that cells expressing muscle, adipose and bone characters all came from genetically identical stem cells. The big question is, “What controlled the transformation that led genetically-identical cells into different developmental fates?” While the genes in all the cells were the same, it was only the culture medium (environment) that was different.

The results of these experiments revealed that genetic activity was “controlled” by the environment! This observation fully challenged the conventional dogma that genes turning “on” and “off” by themselves controlled our physical, emotional, and behavioral characteristics. This misperception specifically led to the concept of genetic determinism, the notion that genes control life, a belief that we are victims of our heredity!

The fact that “environment” was shaping genetic activity was a revolution in consciousness. While an organism cannot change its genes, it can change its environment. The new observations free us from the victimization of genetic determinism and reveals that as we control the conditions of the environment, we have the mastery to control our genetic activity. When I tried to describe the significance of these observations to my colleagues, they simply dismissed my research as an artifact. In those days, the belief in genetic determinism had become a concrete, unquestionable “fact” in biology.

My research on how environment shapes genetic activity was published in 1977 as two scientific publications in the journal Developmental Biology: A fine structural analysis of normal and modulated cells in myogenic culture (Dev Biol, 60:26-47), and Collagen synthesis by normal and bromodeoxyuridine-treated cells in myogenic culture (Dev Biol, 61:153-165)

Twenty years after I started my stem cell research, the same conclusions were officially recognized by science in advancing the revolutionary field of Epigeneticsthe science of how environment controls genetic activity. The most exciting consequence of these studies is the revelation that we are truly masters of our genome. Through consciousness we can rewrite our genetic expression in as little as 8 hours. We are empowered creators, not victims of our genome.

Personally, my life was profoundly enhanced from understanding the significance of these studies. Having a 20-year head start in the field of epigenetics, I saw in the science a “roadmap,” that enabled me to connect the dots between environment, genes, and the role of the conscious and subconscious minds in controlling the character of life. These insights led to the recognition that 95% of our lives are programmed in the first seven years of development. More importantly was the knowledge that we can actively rewrite dysfunctional programs that were formerly thought to be controlled by genes. In this process we can directly control our genes, behaviors, and emotions. Through the knowledge gained from studying cells, I have been able to create a most wonderful Heaven-on-Earth life … checkout the story in The Honeymoon Effect book.

Over time, it has become our mission to “spread the good news” of how truly powerful we are, for this new knowledge of self is the true source of self-empowerment.

Wishing YOU empowerment to manifest a life filled with health, happiness, and harmony.

With LOVE and LIGHT,


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