Neo-Lamarckian medicine

Root Gorelick
Medical Hypotheses 2004, 62 (2): 299-303
Darwinian medicine is the treatment of disease based on evolution. The underlying assumption of Darwinian medicine is that traits are coded by genes, which are often assumed to be sequences of DNA nucleotides. The quantitative genetic ramification of this perspective is that traits, including disease susceptibility, are either caused by genes or by the environment, with genotype-by-environment interactions usually considered statistical artefacts. I emphasize also examining those epigenetic signals that can be altered by environmental perturbations and then transmitted to subsequent generations. Although seldom studied, environmentally-alterable meiotically-heritable epigenetic signals exist and provide a mechanism underlying genotype-by-environment interactions. Environment of a parent can affect its descendants by heritably altering epigenetic signals. Neo-Lamarckian medicine is the application of these evolutionary epigenetic notions to diseases and could have enormous public health and environmental policy implications. If industrial contaminants adversely affect organisms by meiotically-heritably altering their epigenetic signals, then cleaning up these contaminants will not remedy the problem. Once contaminants have adversely altered an individual's epigenetic signals, this harm will be transmitted to future generations even if they are not exposed to the contaminant. Exposure to environmental shocks such as free radicals or other carcinogens can alter cytosine methylation patterns on regulatory genes. This can cause cancer by up-regulating genes for cell division or by down-regulating tumour suppressor genes. Environmentally-alterable meiotically-heritable epigenetic signals could also underlie other diseases, such as diabetes, Prader-Willi syndrome, and many complex diseases. If environmentally-altered meiotically-heritable epigenetic effects are widespread - which is an important open empirical question - they have the potential to alter paradigmatic views of evolutionary medicine and the putative dichotomy of nature versus nurture. Neo-Lamarckian medicine would thereby shift emphasis from cure to prevention of diseases.

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