Thursday, June 23, 2011

Thoughts on father's day

The Bible says (somewhere) that the sins of fathers are visited on their sons, but traditional genetic theory says otherwise. Since Watson and Crick first modeled DNA and the Human Genome Project finally mapped a complete human genome, we've come to believe that our genes are sacred--that we pass on what we are, not what we do.

For cyclists, this is a sometimes depressing, sometimes comforting thought, since it reminds us that we are on a leash, the length of which is set by some kind of unalterable math.

It's how I explain getting dropped--I blame it on my father's genes, not on his diet or exercise habits.

New research is suggesting that genes are not the only factor to blame. Genes don't change (except in the case of viruses), but their expression does. The study of differences in gene expression is called epigenetics.

An example. A famine in some parts of Sweden during WW II is linked with higher likelihood of obesity, diabetes, and other illnesses in the paternal (but not maternal) granddaughters of women who experienced famine while in the womb.

In other words, what grandparents ate (or didn't eat) alters how their grandchildrens' genes express themselves: epigenetics.

Since this is such a new field of research, we don't really know how much difference there is in gene expression, and how much it matters. It could be as big as genetics, with one researcher proclaiming that "epigenetics may ultimately turn out to have a greater role in disease than genetics."

Fine and well. What does this have to do with cycling?

Well, what is cycling but epigenetics--a struggle to redefine ourselves at a fundamental level, to alter how our genes express themsleves, to become a new man/woman?

I started cycling three years ago. My legs don't look like my legs any more. My torso is shrunken. I feel like a different person.

I'm not sure this is what I wanted, from the beginning. I wanted to ride, but I didn't want to change myself necessarily. I'm not sure I wanted to do anything so severe that it might alter disease risk factors for my paternal granddaughters.

But it is a severe sport, and I fell into it severely. I wanted nothing more than to transform myself epigenetically.

I am, undoubtedly, not the only cyclist longing for this epigenetic transformation.

Is it any wonder cyclists dope? Driven, as we are, by the desire to push a machine at speeds beyond human limits, any speed given being a limit, never fast enough. To transform how the self expresses itself.

If not the self.

The drug repoxygen acts in a way completely different from other forms of doping--instead of altering gene expression, it alters genes themselves. It is a virus, a type of gene therapy that induces controlled release of EPO. Those who take repoxygen and reproduce will transmit that gene to their children.

Doping has been a structure hung upon the framework of genes; it leaves them unaltered. Now, it is becoming a way to alter the gene structure itself.

I'm not sure what all this--epigenetics and gene doping--means. Broadly interpreted, I suppose it just expands the ability of children to refuse inheritence, what one takes from one's father.

My dad gave me a lot of great gifts, including the ability to ride a bike tolerably, if not divinely. The challenge of racing a bike and not winning, and maybe of living life in an imperfect world, is to figure out how much of it can be changed, and how much of it you must accept. And the part you accept, you accept that you will pass it on, for good or ill.

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