Archive | January, 2012

Water Boarding: Revered Water Director Didn’t Disclose Wife’s Income

Water Boarding: Revered Water Director Didn’t Disclose Wife’s Income

By John Earl
Surf City Voice

John V. Foley, chairman of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, failed to report over $248,000 of income from his wife, Mary Jane Foley, back to 2004, records obtained by the Surf City Voice under the Public Records Act show.

California’s Political Reform Act requires government officials, including employees and consultants, to publicly disclose their relevant economic interests, often including spousal income, within 30 days of assuming office and annually thereafter.

The officials make their disclosures on a Statement of Economic Interests or “700” form with their respective agencies, after which the information goes to the county and state. The report helps to highlight potential conflicts of interest they may have with issues that come before a government decision making body.

Under the Act, water board directors are required during meetings to disclose any potential conflicts they have with agenda items and to recuse themselves from the decision making process by leaving the room (for consent calendar items they must recuse but can stay in the room).

California Government Code 1090 is even stricter than the ACT.

Recognizing the indirect as well as direct influence that public officials have on decision making, 1090 prohibits any financial conflict of interest by those officials over contracts, even if the official isn’t voting; those officials, it says, “shall not be financially interested in any contract made by them in their official capacity, or by any body or board of which they are members.”

Since 2001, public records obtained by the Voice indicate, Foley’s wife has run her own business, MJF Consulting, Inc., while being paid directly or indirectly for consulting work by water agencies throughout southern California, including the MET and the Municipal Water District of Orange County (MWDOC).

Foley, who has served on the MET since 1989, claimed that he was unaware of any obligation to report his wife’s income.

“I never felt it was required. You know, I don’t have no problem with it,” he told the Voice after a MWDOC meeting last September.

The Voice became aware of some of Foley’s missing financial disclosures after examining his 700 forms going back to 2006. But when questioned, Foley said that he had never reported his wife’s income.

But on October 25, a month after he was questioned by the Voice, Foley filed amended financial disclosures back to 2004 that include most – but not all – consulting income from his wife for each year, records show.

Foley did not respond to requests by the Voice to explain why he updated his disclosure reports and why they are still incomplete. But, according MWDOC General Manager Kevin Hunt, who was present at an interview with Foley conducted by SoCal PBS, Foley said that he had been advised by MET attorneys that it would be “more transparent” to revise his disclosures.

MET spokesperson Bob Muir refused to reveal any confidential advice given to Foley by MET legal counsel, but he did say that no disciplinary action was considered by the board for failing to comply with financial disclosure laws.

The still (partially) missing disclosures involve a three-year $125,000 contract between Byran Buck Associates (BBA) and five water agencies: the MET, MWDOC, San Diego Water Authority, West Basin Municipal Water District and the City of Long Beach Water Department.

Under the terms of the contract, which was administered by the MET, Mary Jane Foley was guaranteed a minimum amount of work as a subcontractor. She was paid $160 per hour or about $45,000 over the contract period. A total of $108,945 or $21,789 each was spent by the five agencies.

The contract was approved by the MET’s general manager, so it did not go to the board for a vote, although contracts for far less value sometimes do– a matter of the GM’s choice, according to MET regulations, when a contract is for $250,000 or less.

The BBA contract violated the law, says former Huntington Beach mayor Debbie Cook, who is also an environmental attorney. Cook has been examining the complex and often hidden operations of local water agencies and was recently interviewed as part of a PBS SoCal expose of the Santa Margarita Water District in south Orange County.

‘A Clear Violation’
Referring to the three-year contract, Cook concludes that it directly benefited long time director Jack Foley and his wife Mary Jane Foley.

“This is a clear violation of Government Code Section 1090. An agency like MWD [MET], with the kinds of resources it has available, should know better,” she wrote in an e-mail to the Voice.

Efforts to contact Chairman Foley since September have been unsuccessful, so far. But MET media spokesperson Armando Acuna, responding to inquires about the legality of Chairman Foley’s standing under 1090, told the Voice, also by e-mail, that “Metropolitan’s Legal Department represents Metropolitan and cannot give legal advice or a legal opinion to members of the public.”

The minimum estimate of $248,000 of unreported income is based on the BBA contracts as well as direct contracts between MWDOC and MJF Consulting, Inc., matched against income sources revealed in Foley’s amended 700 filings (but not including income from other, mostly private, sources that were also part of the amendment filings).

Mary Jane Foley’s work with the five water agencies involved regulatory, permitting and lobbying issues for a proposed ocean desalination plant at Dana Point and for the growth of ocean water (and brackish water) desalination plants throughout California. She is still under contract with MWDOC.

As Chairman of the MET, John Foley selects all members of all standing MET committees and appoints the chairpersons for all special committees and task forces. Before starting his second stint as chairman he headed up the MET’s Special Committee on Desalination and Recycling from its start in 2009 through 2010.

Foley regularly votes on desalination issues at the MET and discusses them at various MWDOC meetings. He is highly venerated by his peers throughout southern California and has strong Republican Party connections going back decades.

The MET casts a vast influence as a water wholesaler over all of southern California, including Ventura County, the Inland Empire, Orange County and San Diego. It delivers 1.6 billion gallons of water per day to 26 cities and water districts, including MWDOC, and to 19 million people, according to its website. MWDOC, in turn, helps manage water for its 28 water agencies and member cities in Orange County.

Foley is one of four appointees chosen by the MWDOC board of directors to represent it on the MET – and he is one of two within that group who were not elected by voters to either board.

The other unelected MET director representing MWDOC is Linda Ackerman. Her husband, Dick Ackerman, is a former California state legislator who works for Nossaman LLP, an Orange County legal and policy consulting firm under contract with MWDOC. Linda Ackerman includes that income source on her 700 forms.

A Seasoned Water Veteran
Cook is skeptical of Foley’s claim that he didn’t think he had to report. “He is a seasoned water veteran. He has received many hours of required training on avoidance of conflicts of interest, and it was common knowledge among his colleagues and MET staff that his wife’s income was derived from the same public agency [MWDOC] that he serves—shame on the entire industry that does not seem willing or able to police its own.”

Based on his impressive resume, Foley would seem anything but a novice when it comes to understanding the rules of water boarding.

He first came to the MET board of directors in 1989 as an appointee of MWDOC. He served as MET chairman from 1993 – 1998 and was elected again by that body to be chairman for a two year term starting in 2011.

From 1979 until Dec. 2007 Foley was also the General Manager of Moulton Niguel Water District in south Orange County. Moulton is one of five water agencies that make up the South Orange Coastal Ocean Desalination Project, a group that plans to build an ocean desalination plant in Dana Point—under guidance from MWDOC and with promised financial assistance from the MET.

Seven months after John Foley left Moulton his wife was warned of a potential conflict of interest with her work on the Dana Point desalination plant because her husband had been involved in that project as Moulton’s general manager. In an e-mail obtained by the Voice, Mary Jane Foley asks MWDOC’s project managers Richard Bell and Karl Seckel what she should do:

“Richard has informed me that since Jack is a signature to the participating desal group from MNWD, I will be perceived as a conflict. Richard said that South Coast will run my contract. How will this all be determined? Do I stop all work and communication with you all now?”

In this e-mail, Mary Jane Foley asks about a conflict of interest between her work and her husband's involvement in a project. To view at full size, click this image once, then after it appears in a new window, click it again.

But Mary Jane Foley continued her consulting work with MWDOC, as well as her work as a subcontractor for Byran Buck Associates. And what could have been taken as a wake up call for her husband – to report a potential conflict of interest on his 700 forms – was overlooked, at least until after the Voice forced the issue.

If hands-on experience isn’t the best teacher, then mandatory ethics training every two years also helps water board directors in California to understand their legal and ethical obligations to the public. Chairman Foley completed ethics classes given at the MET in 2008 and 2010.

He would also have received a copy of the MET’s ethics manual for directors, which reminds its readers of two levels of ethical practice. The first is compliance with “relevant laws, rules, regulations and policies” that come with the job. The second is a “level of ethically ideal behavior in which Directors, officers and employees strive to incorporate Metropolitan’s core values in their daily work.”

That work ethic is also spelled out clearly in the MET’s Administrative Code, Section 7102, which, it might be safely assumed, was also presented to Foley for his reading. On the matter of disclosure, it says, “Directors shall comply with applicable laws regulating their conduct, including conflict of interests and financial disclosure laws.”

When the Voice asked Chairman Foley (in September) if he saw any conflict between his support of desalination projects as a MET director and his wife’s extensive work promoting desalination for MWDOC (at that time the Voice was still unaware of the BBA contract), he denied any conflict and said, contrary to public records, that she had “very little” involvement in desalination issues. “I have nothing to do with it [her work],” he added.

Foley was indifferent when asked about a vote he cast—as a director and while he was Chairman of the Special Committee on Desalination and Recycling—for the MET to join CALDESAL, a pro-desalination lobbying organization that public documents show his wife played an important role in forming while under contract with MWDOC.

“Did the MET show me as voting for it,” he asked. “Whether she was involved or not, I would have supported it,” he said, laughing.

Besides, he explained, “It’s not really a conflict of interest. You’ve got to draw a direct line to really make a point of conflict of interest.”

Foley was obliquely, whether accurately or not, comparing his own situation to legal exemptions that are made in cases where the conflict of interest is, in legal parlance, remote.

“You know, I believe in conservation,” he said, rhetorically. “Does that mean I have a conflict of interest because we voted for conservation?”

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Posted in Headlines, MWD, MWDOC, Poseidon, Water, Water Boarding4 Comments

Occupy This Book: ECONOMICS UNMASKED – From power and greed to compassion and common good

Occupy This Book: ECONOMICS UNMASKED – From power and greed to compassion and common good

By Sarah (Steve) Mosko
Special to the Surf City Voice

If you are looking for a passionless primer on modern economics spouting platitudes about how western style capitalism, unregulated markets and globalization are fail proof and good for all, this book is not for you.

If, instead, your guts tell you something is seriously amiss when the gulf between the rich and the poor is ever widening and the health of the planet is on a steady decline, all while politicians bicker over policy nuances that have nothing to do with solving these immense realities, then you will find this book vital and loaded with truths.

The authors are Philip B. Smith, a recently deceased physicist-turned-economist who recognized that the discipline of economics lacks the value-free pursuit of truth ideally embraced by hard sciences, like physics or chemistry, and Manfred Max-Neef, a very much alive academic economist who, when confronted with poverty in the flesh, became a dissident of mainstream economics upon realizing that everything he’d been taught left him bereft of any real understanding of poverty and its solutions.

They joined forces in this mostly easy to digest book (I have never had an economics course) to expose how the predominant economic paradigm driving the world’s economies today is based on far less-than-lofty values – greed, competition and accumulation – values so universally sanctioned that no apology is deemed necessary even though it can be shown that wealth accumulated through such a system leads to immeasurable human injustices and environmental ills.

This paradigm fosters rapid economic expansion “at any cost” to people or the planet, and it is fed by the uncontrolled consumption of fossil fuels and a belief that consumerism is the path to happiness. It also concentrates power and wealth in the hands of a small minority.

Several “myths” underlying the economic system which have successfully evaded scrutiny are brought to light. Most fundamental is the notion that perpetually increasing economic growth and production are a necessity, and even possible, on a finite planet.  A case is made that such magical thinking is the root cause of global warming and depletion of natural resources including oil and gas, fresh water and biodiversity. The authors warn of the inevitable environmental crash in our future if a more sustainable economic system is not adopted.

Other myths debunked include the views that globalization is inevitable and the only route to development (recall that the United States did not follow such a model) and that competition and integration into the world economy are necessarily good for poor nations. We are reminded, for example, that the natural resources of poorer nations are very often plundered and their local industries destroyed by rich nations under the pretext of globalization, and that jobs are lost at home when competition prompts corporations to outsource overseas.

Furthermore, democracy takes a back seat to corporate power when international institutions like the World Trade Organization dictate laws and regulations that nations need follow which effectively enable corporations to “rule the world.”

Who has gained

An over-arching theme of this book is the de-humanization of mainstream economics, where the GNP (gross national product) is revered as the ultimate indicator of a nation’s wealth, when in reality the GNP has become detached from the real measures of a nation’s success and well-being: the health and economic security of its peoples and their freedom to act in pursuit of their own best interests. The authors stress that a shift to a humanized economy will necessitate that culturally approved values of greed, competition and accumulation be replaced by solidarity, cooperation and compassion.

The key premises upon which a humanized economy would need to be based are laid out. Among them are realizations that the purpose of the economy is to serve the needs of people and not the reverse, that the economy takes place within the biosphere so permanent growth is impossible, and that reverence for life trumps all other economic interests.

Although “Economics Unmasked” reached bookstore shelves just months before the Occupy and 99 Percent movements had names or affiliates, it’s fair to say they seem drawn from the same wellspring of moral outrage over the social and environmental injustices attributable to the prevailing economic model. The fundamental difference perhaps is that the book authors’ academic backgrounds and access to real world facts about mainstream economics enabled them to lay out a forceful imperative for and roadmap to a more moral economic paradigm whereas, accurate or not, Occupy and 99 Percent have been criticized for lacking clear messages and solutions.

Activists within these movements, as well as sympathetic onlookers, would no doubt benefit from reading this book to help them better articulate both their grievances with the status quo and proposals for change. And to those who might take offense at any criticism of capitalism, know that this book is in no way a blanket indictment of capitalism, just of its recent incarnation.

“Economics Unmasked” was published in 2011 in the United Kingdom by Green Books.

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Epigenetics: Resolutionary New Spin on Nature vs. Nurture

Epigenetics: Resolutionary New Spin on Nature vs. Nurture

By Sarah (Steve) Mosko
Special to the Surf City Voice

What if chemicals your great-great grandmother was exposed to, or even her diet, could affect your risk of falling victim to cancers, mental illness or Alzheimer’s disease? Sounds far-fetched perhaps, but what we are learning about the new science of epigenetics says it’s very possible and happens without a change to the DNA you inherited from her.

Epigenetics also explains how it is that your brain and toe are made of cells with identical DNA, but look and function so differently, and why identical twins are never exact replicas, though their DNA is.

The basis for all these phenomena lies not in the genome – the DNA sequences  which make up our genes – but rather in intricate cell machinery sitting atop the DNA that dictates which genes are turned on or off at any point in the life of both a single cell or an entire organism, like a human being. A good analogy would be the orchestra conductor signaling when each instrument should play and how loudly. The Greek prefix “epi” means “on top of” or “in addition to,” hence the epigenome denotes the apparatus attached to the genome within a cell’s nucleus which enables tissues and even whole organisms with identical DNA to look and function very differently.

It’s long been appreciated that the epigenome is what coordinates the development of a fetus, telling an undifferentiated stem cell, for example, to morph into a heart cell at the right time. Because the epigenome is replicated along with the DNA during cell division, it also provides the “cell memory” needed so the heart cell knows to keep making more heart cells.

However, what’s new and creating shockwaves in our understanding of human illnesses is that the epigenome is influenced throughout our lifetime by not only normal internal factors, such as hormones, but by external ones too, like diet, drugs, stress and environmental pollutants. An epigenome that can adjust to changes in environmental conditions, like a scarcity of food, is advantageous if the adjustments enable better adaptation to the environment. However, a non-fixed epigenome also means that conditions you were exposed to early in development which modified the epigenome in unfortunate ways might trigger diseases cropping up even decades later in adulthood.

Moreover, where we used to assume that any acquired epigenetic changes were erased during the type of cell division that produces eggs and sperm, we know now that eggs and sperm can also retain acquired epigenetic markings which, good or bad, can be passed on to your children and your children’s children.

The Epigenetic Machinery

The human genome is comprised of 20-25,000 genes, but by far the majority are turned off in differentiated cells through various epigenetic means. Significant progress has been made in recent years in understanding two particular epigenetic mechanisms and how they relate to human diseases.

The most studied is called DNA methylation where methyl groups (CH3) – a common chemical structure in foods and vitamins – attach directly onto the strands of DNA, like charms on a chain-link bracelet, and have the effect of silencing genes. The importance of DNA methylation is illustrated by the fact that, during the normal development of an embryo, DNA undergoes critical waves of both methylation and de-methylation which orchestrate healthy cell growth and differentiation.

The other epigenetic mechanism, so-called histone modification, is a bit more convoluted. DNA strands are very long – a single strand is made of tens of millions of the building block base nucleotides. Consequently, nature has developed a system of packaging the DNA that both keeps it compact and regulates which parts are available, or not, for transcription.

From: National Institutes for Health

Proteins called histones group together to form spool-like structures around which the DNA is wrapped, much like threads on a spool. DNA that is tightly wrapped is generally inaccessible for read-out and so is repressed. In the parlance of geneticists, such DNA sections are “closed.” In contrast, loosely wrapped DNA is “open” and the genes in those areas are generally active.

The histones determine how the DNA wraps around them by way of “histone tails” that stick out and are available to be tagged by chemical factors floating by. Depending on what factors latch on and where, the histone shape is modified which, in turn, affects whether the DNA is open or closed.

For instance, an “acetyl” tag (COCH3) on a histone tail generally opens up the adjacent DNA for read-out, whereas removing or replacing an acetyl tag with a different factor can have the opposite effect. Acetyl is another very common chemical structure found, for example, in acetaminophen, aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) and heroin (diacetylmorphine).

Unless a mutation occurs, the DNA sequence remains fixed for the life of a cell. However, both DNA methylation and histone tail modifications are, by design, changeable and consequently sensitive to the cell’s environment. So for a whole organism like a human being, anything which affects the chemical soup inside its cells can potentially alter which genes are expressed and, thus, the health of the whole organism.  Scientists are just now getting an idea of the wide spectrum of environmental factors which could be shaping the human epigenome.

Epigenetic Diseases
It goes without saying that a person’s DNA determines vulnerability to many ailments through either inherited genes or, occasionally, new DNA mutations. A clear-cut example would be Huntington’s disease, a neurodegenerative condition where a child inheriting a single defective gene from either parent with the disease will also be afflicted 100 percent of the time.

The realization that the epigenome also plays a role in many illnesses grew, in part, out of the observation that some ailments appear at certain ages, suggesting a switch of some sort had been flipped. For example, symptoms of schizophrenia rarely appear before adolescence, and the onset of Huntington’s disease is usually delayed until after the age of 35. Scientists suspect that the epigenome keeps the defective gene(s) in check early on, but that epigenetic changes accumulate gradually over time so the defect is eventually unmasked and the person falls ill.

Experts think that a build up of epigenetic changes also explains why one identical twin develops a disease and the other does not. When the epigenomes of twins are compared, the epigenetic markings are essentially identical as toddlers, but become much less similar as time goes on and their vulnerabilities to illnesses also diverge. Schizophrenia is one disorder known to run in families and has a strong genetic basis, so researchers are actively looking into and finding patterns of DNA methylation and histone modifications of the suspect genes that could explain why nearly half the time when one twin is afflicted the other is spared.

In autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, the frequency of the second twin falling victim too when one has the condition is much lower, between one in four and one in eight. This suggests that a genetically inherited susceptibility is only part of the story, and researchers have found the epigenome fertile ground for hints to the rest. Take lupus, for instance, a condition where the body’s immune system goes haywire and attacks the skin, joints and/or internal organs. No one gene causes the disease, but more than 20 which participate have already been identified. The known environmental triggers are ones that damage cells (like ultraviolet light, viruses and certain drugs), thus exposing the immune system to novel cell components normally locked away within the nucleus. There is compelling evidence that environmental triggers act through DNA de-methylation of so-called T-cells, the foot soldiers of the immune system that consequently go renegade and mistake normal cell components for foreign invaders. The T-cells of people with lupus have the same pattern of de-methylation as do T-cells exposed to drugs known to both inhibit DNA methylation and set off lupus symptoms.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, affecting one in 16 people after the age of 65. Post-mortem brain analyses reveal extensive atrophy with a signature buildup of abnormal deposits called plaques and tangles. The vast majority of cases are sporadic, meaning the disease does not run in families and can’t be tied to particular genes, which has led geneticists to turn to the epigenome for answers. What they are finding is described as “epigenetic drift,” a gradual accumulation of many epigenetic changes spread throughout the genome, affecting both genes that protect against Alzheimer’s and others that add risk. Because the brains available for study are generally from persons with very advanced stages of the disease, it’s not yet certain whether epigenetic drift is the cause or the consequence of the disease.

Nevertheless, the current thinking is that as yet unidentified environmental factors spur epigenetic changes pivotal to the onset of the disease, and this notion has traction from studies showing that a healthy diet (like the Mediterranean diet which is rich in fruits, vegetables and omega-3 fatty acids), physical exercise and married lifestyle (i.e. co-habitation) are the best known defenses. Among the specific nutritional components that could be involved are vitamins B12, B6 and folate because they are good methyl group sources, and diets deficient in these substances increase risk for Alzheimer’s. Coffee drinking and long-term use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, like aspirin and ibuprofen, also seem to be protective, whereas cigarette smoking increases risk.

Epigenetic drift is also characteristic of normal aging, which probably explains why aging is, by itself, the greatest risk factor for Alzheimer’s. A global loss in DNA methylation occurs during aging, and animal studies suggest that longer lifespan is correlated with slowed DNA de-methylation. Scientists suspect that dietary calorie restriction, the only intervention in mammals shown to increase lifespan, likely acts through epigenetic modifications that slow a normal age-related loss of a family of proteins that seem to keep cells younger.

Cancer begins with a DNA mutation, but a wealth of recent research is pointing to a major role of epigenetics in cancers too. For example, many types of cancer cells have been found to have an abnormal pattern of methylation where the DNA is globally under-methylated but certain genes – like ones that repair DNA or normally prevent cell growth from getting out of hand – are blocked by local excess methylation. The list of cancers already linked to abnormal DNA methylation of specific genes is expanding rapidly and includes lung, ovarian, breast, endometrial,  bladder, esophagus, stomach, intestinal, colon and melanoma as well as blood cancers like lymphoma, leukemia and myelodysplastic syndrome. The number of cancers associated with specific histone modifications is nearly as large.

Epigenetic Inheritance & Environmental Influences
The idea that physical or behavioral traits acquired during one’s lifetime could be handed down to the next generation was, until very recently, relegated by modern geneticists to the trash heap.  As example of the kind of experiment that discredited this notion, the offspring of mice whose tails have been chopped short are always born with normal length tails.

However, recent experiments have demonstrated that traits acquired through alterations in the epigenome are sometimes passed on in eggs or sperm via epigenetic inheritance. One striking example revolves around a mouse gene variant dubbed the agouti where the gene’s pattern of methylation determines both coat color and health. In the hypo-methylated state, agouti mice are born yellow and become obese and prone to tumors and diabetes. Methylation silences the agouti gene, producing thin brown rats with few tumors.

One astounding aspect of the agouti story is that just manipulating how rich a pregnant mouse’s diet is in sources of methyl groups influences whether the offspring are born of the brown or yellow type. That diet alone could induce epigenetic changes which affect susceptibility to illness is very intriguing given that the incidence of several cancers, heart disease, diabetes and many other human conditions are already known to be influenced by diet. The other astonishing finding is that the mother’s (and even grandmother’s)  coat color determined the likelihood pups were born brown or yellow, showing that the methylation pattern in eggs cells was not reset but rather retained through another generation.

In humans, evidence is accruing that diet – in this case the availability of food – early in development influences whether a person develops schizophrenia. Parts of China experienced a severe famine affecting tens of millions of people from 1959 to 1961. An epidemiological study has shown that babies born during this period were at more than double the risk for eventually developing schizophrenia. Although how an early famine diet would foster schizophrenia is not yet known, a twin study reported in 2011, which links both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder to altered methylation at some key genes in the affected twin, has scientists thinking that famine might act through the epigenome.

Synthetic chemicals in the environment are an obvious place to look for environmental influences on the epigenome. In 2005, the first study was published demonstrating that fetal exposure to an environmental toxin could trigger illness in adulthood through an epigenetic mechanism and that subsequent, unexposed generations are also affected.  Researchers at Washington State University found that pregnant rats exposed to a common fungicide or pesticide known to mimic or block sex hormones produced, through altered DNA methylation, sons, grandsons, great-grandsons and even great-great-grandsons with low sperm counts and reduced fertility.

Follow-up studies revealed that, by a similar epigenetic mechanism, brief fungicide exposure during fetal life also conferred increased risk for several diseases of aging in both male and female rats across multiple succeeding generations. The afflictions most often passed on included kidney and prostate diseases, testis abnormalities, and tumors of the breast, lung and skin.

The applicability of such findings to humans is unclear, especially given that the chemical doses used were rather high, but subsequent research on other environmental contaminants has only intensified concern that prenatal exposure can instigate epigenetic changes with harmful effects appearing later in life.

In a University of Illinois study for example, fetal male rats exposed to the estrogen-mimicking chemical bisphenol A (found in plastics and the lining of canned foods) subsequently developed early signs of prostrate cancer, with evidence pointing to altered DNA methylation of a gene linked to prostate cancer as the likely mechanism. Importantly, the dose of bisphenol A used was low and produced tissue levels comparable to those commonly seen in people.

Recent investigations have made clear that remodeling of the epigenome can occur in response to environmental factors far more subtle than toxic chemicals and should be considered as a candidate means through which most any environmental factor influences the physical characteristics or behaviors of animals and humans. For instance, studies in rats have shown that the quality of maternal care – defined as the amount of licking and grooming a pup receives from its mother in the first week after birth – permanently imprints the epigenome (through processes including DNA de-methylation and histone acetylation) and determines how the animals react to stress as adults. Researchers are positing that analogous early epigenomic imprinting might explain how children deprived of adequate parental care can exhibit severe cognitive and behavioral problems persisting into adulthood.

The Future of Epigenetics
A bedrock tenet of evolutionary biology has been that evolution occurs very slowly as a consequence of rare and random changes to the genetic code and that those changes which foster better adaptation to the environment get passed on the most. Epigenetics is turning this notion on its head because epigenetic changes are neither random nor do they involve the genetic code, and the interplay with the environment is different because the environment instigates rapid changes to the epigenome throughout one’s lifetime that can be inherited by future generations.

Even though our understanding of epigenetics is in its infancy, how we conceptualize the evolution of all life forms, including our own, is already transformed. We should also expect that epigenetics will revolutionize the entire field of medicine. Scientists have begun looking into how epigenetic markers might be used to catch diseases earlier on and to predict how well a given treatment, like chemotherapy, will work. A new generation of pharmaceuticals which manipulate the epigenome to switch targeted genes on or off is under investigation too, and the new field of “nutragenomics” is gaining credibility as a means to repair or optimize the epigenome through diet alone.

The most important shift in our thinking, however, will hopefully come from a much deeper and sorely needed respect for how tied our own future as a species is to the state of the environment. Western society tends to see humans as somehow outside of or even in conflict with nature, hence the ease with which we find convenient excuses for polluting the air, soil and water. Perhaps the core lesson to be learned from epigenetics is that there is no real boundary between us and the rest of nature. We are, literally, everything we eat, drink, breathe in and absorb through our skins. We are inseparable from the environment and should tend to it with the same care we give to raising children.

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