Epigenetics;  “… the ‘blood’ is still there.”

     In the early and mid years of the last century it was not uncommon for folks with lots of money to spend to buy a ranch and stock it with pure-bred cattle.  Many of these enterprises were successful and many were not.  Novice ranchers were prone to make mistakes in managing the care, breeding, and nutrition of their cattle. This usually led to a degradation of the appearance and productivity of the once fine looking breeding stock.  The end result was frequently a dispersal sale — selling the cattle at auction.

     My good friend and client, Evan, was a prominent  and successful    breeder of pure-bred polled-Hereford cattle in Missouri.  His knowledge of the bloodlines and families of Hereford cattle was unsurpassed.  Moreover, Evan was an innovative herdsman.  He fed his cattle well and was innovative in his approach to animal nutrition.  He was adding Wheat Germ Oil to the ration of his breeding a long time before livestock nutritionist recognized the value of Vitamin E. 

     If the dispersal sales mentioned above involved Hereford cattle with bloodlines compatible with those in his herd, and was located within a reasonable driving distance, Evan would attend the sale.  He rarely came home empty handed.

Evan would keep his new purchases separate from his main herd for a week or two just a precaution.  During the quarantine period he would call me to do a health evaluation.  The first time I did this, I was somewhat taken aback, as the new animals were not good specimen of the breed.  Evan noticed my dismay and said, “Yeah, I know they look like Hell, but they didn’t cost much and the blood is still there.”  He explained that by ‘blood’ he meant the bloodlines or genetics were intact and opined that good nutrition could build them back up.  I was not convinced.

     After some years, though, whenever I made a farm visit, Evan would p  oint out individuals in his herd that would have graced any Hereford show-ring.  With a grin on his face he would remind me, “Those are all direct 2nd or 3rd generation descendants of the animals you ridiculed years ago.” 

    Evan may not have understood the fine points of epigenetic as we now understand it, but he intuitively employed the basic concept of epigenetics decades before it appeared in the scientific press.  

   In simple terms, epigenetics is the study of changes in gene expression that occur without changes in the genetic code itself — genes are not set in stone as previously thought, but are like switches that can be turned off or on by various factors such as nutrition, stress, drugs, and sundry environmental factors — “and the ‘blood’ is still there.”

  The resulting change in genetic expression may persist for generations.  As one researcher noted, “If you are of reproductive age, whatever you take into your body— food, drink, drugs, air — may affect the health of your great grandchildren.”    These alterations can be good or bad — going down hill in the aforementioned mismanaged herds or climbing back uphill in Evan’s herd.