The Oconee Enterprise, May 5, 2016:
Dr. David Lewis
To understand the role genetics plays in Alzheimer’s disease, autism and other important diseases and disorders, scientists look for mutations passed down from one generation to another. These mutations usually originate with chemical, biological and physical forces that alter our genetic code. Chemical pollutants, viruses and ionizing radiation are some of the main culprits. Fortunately, our bodies have DNA repair mechanisms that can correct at least some of the damage. Still, the increasing intensity and complexity of environmental exposures are taking a toll on our genetic health.
Not all mutations are bad. Several thousand years after the end of the last Ice Age, a genetic mutation occurred in Europe that enabled humans to continue producing lactase into adulthood. This single mutation allows most humans today to survive on milk products throughout their lives whenever other sources of nutrition are unavailable. And not all mutations are directly caused by environmental exposures. In studies with genetically modified fish, Professor Richard Winn at the University of Georgia discovered that DNA repair mechanisms themselves can go awry during early pre-natal development, creating new mutations while attempting to repair old ones.
Administrators in UGA’s School of Forestry and Natural Resources failed to appreciate the potential this research held to uncovering the environmental causes of autism and other developmental disorders. After remarking that he did not understand the professor’s research, the dean dismantled the project; and Professor Winn retired. It had taken the professor over two decades to create the gene pool and databases necessary to conduct this vitally important research.
Genetics clearly plays an important role in the development of many diseases. But that doesn’t mean nothing can be done to prevent it. There’s an urgent need for a better understanding of how the increasingly complex chemical soup we’re living in alters our genetics and leads to a host of public health problems. The beneficial mutation that enabled humans to digest milk as adults has spread throughout the global population. So too will harmful mutations caused by many of the chemicals we’re releasing into our environment, incorporating in commercial products, contaminating our food and drink with, and even marketing as medications and preventatives.
Human populations are becoming less healthy at alarming rates; and regulating only a tiny fraction of the harmful chemicals we expose ourselves and our children to will never make a dent. Government agencies at federal, state and local levels seem incapable of even doing that much very well. One important step we could take to protect our genetic health is destroy chemical pollutants, or at least immobilize them, at their sources. We shouldn’t just release them into the environment. We have the technology to do this. All we lack is the political will and leadership within government and industry to make it happen.
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David Lewis, Ph.D.
Former U.S. EPA Research Microbiologist
David Lewis is an internationally recognized research microbiologist whose work on public health and environmental issues, as a senior-level Research Microbiologist in EPA’s Office of Research & Development and member of the Graduate Faculty of the University of Georgia, has been reported in numerous news articles and documentaries from TIME magazine and Reader’s Digest to National Geographic.