Skip to main content
Premium Trial:

Request an Annual Quote

The Sum of Your Experiences

Your experiences, it is said, can shape who you are as a person. At Pacific Standard magazine, David Dobbs writes that experiences may also shape your gene expression.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's Gene Robinson tells Dobbs that how bees are raised influences which genes are switched on and to what level they are expressed. Robinson and his colleagues examined the gene expression levels of European honeybees, Apis mellifera ligustica, and African bees, Apis mellifera scutellata. When the mellower A. m. ligustica bees were raised in the more aggressive A. m. scutellata colony — and vice versa — they took on the gene expression and behavior of their foster colony.

"These bees didn't just act like different bees. They'd pretty much become different bees. To Robinson, this spoke of a genome far more fluid — far more socially fluid — than previously conceived," Dobbs writes.

Similar effects, Dobbs adds, have been seen in fish and birds, and sometimes they occurred quite quickly.

Another researcher, Steve Cole at the University of California, Los Angeles, has been studying people. He has examined gene expression differences in people who are lonely and others who are not, finding differences. Those differences, Cole is finding, may also influence whether, and how quickly, people get sick.

Dobbs notes that Cole often sums up talks he gives on his work like this: "'Your experiences today will influence the molecular composition of your body for the next two to three months,' he tells his audience, 'or, perhaps, for the rest of your life. Plan your day accordingly.'"