The mother mouse looks up and says, “Hey, geniuses, tell me how my son got into this sorry state.” “Bad inheritance,” says Darwin. For over a hundred years, those two views — nature or nurture, biology or psychology — offered opposing explanations for how behaviors develop and persist, not only within a single individual but across generations.And then, in 1992, two young scientists following in Freud’s and Darwin’s footsteps actually did walk into a bar.
“Moshe, being kosher, was interested in kosher calories. One such extra element is the methyl group, a common structural component of organic molecules.
The methyl group works like a placeholder in a cookbook, attaching to the DNA within each cell to select only those recipes — er, genes — necessary for that particular cell’s proteins.
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Two alcoholic mice — a mother and her son — sit on two bar stools, lapping gin from two thimbles.
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Moshe Szyf, a molecular biologist and geneticist at Mc Gill University in Montreal, had never studied psychology or neurology, but he had been talked into attending by a colleague who thought his work might have some application. So it was perfect.” The two engaged in animated conversation about a hot new line of research in genetics.
Likewise, Michael Meaney, a Mc Gill neurobiologist, had been talked into attending by the same colleague, who thought Meaney’s research into animal models of maternal neglect might benefit from Szyf’s perspective.“I can still visualize the place — it was a corner bar that specialized in pizza,” Meaney says. Since the 1970s, researchers had known that the tightly wound spools of DNA inside each cell’s nucleus require something extra to tell them exactly which genes to transcribe, whether for a heart cell, a liver cell or a brain cell.
But pioneering studies showed that molecular bric-a-brac could be added to DNA in adulthood, setting off a cascade of cellular changes resulting in cancer.