Flickers of Change: Epigenetics, Cymatics & Regeneration
My friend, a film buff, came up with the challenge: Connect the dots between a film — fictional or documentary — and the theme of creativity. To start things off he suggested Six by Sondheim, a “creative biography” of the noted composer, lyricist and teacher. Sondheim’s extraordinary story, revealed through performances and interviews, is a deft weave of musical collaborations that were captured in the moment and deeply personal reflections of a long, intensely lived life. It wasn’t only that Sondheim was musically gifted, or that he never seemed to miss a detail about the human condition: funny, poignant, often both. It was also that Sondheim never lost his sweetness, his curiosity, his passion for teaching, or his ability to cry. He welcomed joy, but was unafraid of sorrow. His creativity gave him focus.
And, of course, we are all the richer for it.
My friend, the film buff, knows how to set a high bar.
I took an entirely different approach for my turn in the films-about-creativity derby, leaning into microbiology, physics and ecology: the glorious, geeky details of existence.
The following is an expansion of a short talk I gave to a group of designers, visual artists, art directors, strategists and business managers. They weren’t expecting a Monday morning science lecture — though were very polite about getting one.
A little over 150 years ago, DNA, the self-replicating molecule from which genes are made, was discovered. Or at least its existence was guessed at by Friedrich Miescher, a graduate student the University of Tübingen in Germany.
And fifty years after that, in 2003, the human genome had been mapped.
Many thought that was the end of the story. The puzzle of life had been solved!
Of course, it was only the beginning.
This first video, Epigenome: the symphony in your cells, is a six-minute wonder produced by the science journal, Nature. Using Beethoven’s 5th, the genome is compared to a musical score. Each note represents a gene. The performance is how the music is played. Hold a note, skip a beat, switch out instruments and the same score can sound very different.
How these gene/notes are played, or “expressed,” is the science of epigenetics.
“Epi” refers to the surface — as in epidermis, the outermost layer of skin. Epigenetics focuses on environmental factors that influence chemical reactions at the surface of the gene. Will a gene/note be played, or silenced? Will that, in turn, affect other genes?
Until epigenetics entered the picture, conventional wisdom — what you were likely taught in school — was that the mix of parental genes at conception mapped out child’s destiny. But it turns out that every individual of every species is constantly adapting in all kinds of subtle ways to an ever-changing environment.
The epigenome is where nature meets nurture.
Change Over Time
Writ large, evolution is about changes in populations over generations: How one species slowly but surely segues into another.
In contrast, epigenetics is about changes in individuals within a single lifetime. This is most easily tracked in the diverging epigenomes of natural clones, also known as genetically identical twins: (epigenetics video part 1; part 2).
But it is not quite so simple. Some epigenetic changes can be passed onto offspring, inherited right along with the genes they affect.
For example, a pioneering study on genetically identical pregnant rats several years ago demonstrated the dramatic and long-lasting effects of pre-natal nutrition. These particular rats had a gene that caused obesity and also changed fur color to yellow when it was silenced by an epigenetic chemical process call methylation. Mom #1, who was yellow and obese, was fed a diet full of nutrients to promote proper methylation and her pups were born gray and healthy. Mom #2, who was yellow and obese, was fed a nutritionally deficient diet. Her pups were born yellow, obese and were destined for lifetime of health issues.
Even more intriguing, the grand-pups of Mom #1 were born gray and healthy, too, no matter what their moms were fed while pregnant. They inherited the epigenetic fix.
Randy Jirtle, the scientist who developed the experiment, explains: “So it is not just what you ate, but potentially what your mother ate, and possibly what your grandparents ate.”
Epigenetics, however, goes beyond what we consume. Anything we experience in the environment can have epigenetic consequences. This is especially true during periods of rapid development. Babies in utero, young children and adolescents are particularly sensitive.
A great deal of research has been focused on chemicals found in plastics. Exposure to Bisphenol A (BPA) in utero has been linked to changes in the male reproductive system and also an increased risk later in life for prostate cancer, among other things. Exposure to Bisphenol F (BPF) has been linked to lower IQs in boys. So in addition to everything else that’s wrong with petrochemical plastics — from climate-warming, greenhouse gasses emitted during production to a massive global pollution problem — we are in the midst of a real-time experiment that may lead to future generations that aren’t as smart.
The story of epigenetics is more nuanced than what can go wrong. While it is often easier to begin to understand how things work by focusing on what can go wrong, epigenetics is essential business-as-usual biology. Every single cell in an individual has the same genetic make-up. The difference between whether a cell develops into skin or heart or liver or bone is epigenetic.
To go back to the music metaphor, the score is always the same, but the notes are played very differently.
In terms of creativity, the take-away is the elegant, complex dynamism of existence. Nothing stays the same, even for an instant. Epigenetics is about flexibility and real-time, contextual responsiveness; of futures that are constantly being rewritten.
The second video recommendation is Cymatics, a music video by Nigel Stanford that combines technical virtuosity with an unbounded sense of playfulness.
Cymatics is the study of wave phenomena: the effects of sound waves on elastic surfaces such as water, or patterns created from sand sent airborne by vibrations.
Like epigenetics, cymatics helps us better understand invisible forces that shape our world. And since we are in large part water ourselves — our brains and hearts are 73% water, while blood is basically seawater with hemoglobin — cymatics tells us something about how sounds affect us, too, whether in the form of music, the timbre of a voice, construction noise, or the babble of a brook.
Move up the wavelength scale and the story shifts to vibrations of light — and the prismatic colors within — that resonate. This is the physics of aesthetics. Sound, light and color are the palette.
My final recommendation isn’t a film, or even a short video, but a book: Regeneration: Ending the climate crisis in one generation by Paul Hawken. Hawken, who helped coin the term “natural capital” and spearheaded Project Drawdown, has dedicated his career to keeping us from collectively flying off a climate cliff.
With global warming atmospheric carbon levels racing toward a point of no return (estimated at 450 parts per million) there isn’t much time left to make a difference. Yet Hawken’s message is clear: It is still not too late to turn things around.
The book provides example after example of what can be done at both scale and speed using existing technologies, with three overarching criteria:
Stop adding to the problem. Find alternatives to fossil fuels.
Work with natural systems. Leverage network effects.
Look for answers that address many problems at once: climate change, biodiversity, food, shelter, jobs, water, social justice, equity.
The goal of regeneration goes way beyond recovery or even resilience. It leaves “sustainability” — a low bar in the best of times — in the dust. Regeneration reboots a degraded and failing system, bringing it back to operational health. Regeneration embraces micro-to-macro complexity and the stability it provides.
Early in the book, Hawken writes about the “spillover” effect of Marine Protected Areas. Mangrove and kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs take up only a tiny percentage of the oceans, but their protection can lead to cascades of goodness.
They are fish nurseries critical for rebuilding adjacent fish stocks.
They serve as buffers against rising seas and extreme weather.
They sequester carbon — lots of carbon — quickly.
Likewise, on terra firma, old growth forests are about more than the carbon-absorbing capabilities of trees. “Proforestation,” the protection of intact forests, delivers the climate-stabilizing service of a complex ecosystem that includes a rich, carbon-sequestering soil microbiome.
Reforestation, planting replacement trees in forests that have been lost mostly to logging, starts with a depleted, shredded soil microbiome. It simply cannot deliver the same impact. Trees are not interchangeable. They are not equal. The parts we see, the trunk, branches and leaves, are only part of the story. Like Marine Protected Areas, the goodness of intact, old growth forests provides benefits far beyond their borders.
Ecological regeneration, like epigenetics and cymatics, is about cause and effect. Will we collectively turn “on” the gene for a healthy planet? Will we feel the vibrant pulse of life?
When work leaves an artist’s studio or writer’s desk, it takes on a life of its own. It is a kind of time capsule, an artifact of the context in which is was created. Inevitably, it will be viewed differently in the future and by different cultures. The relationship is dynamic.
There was a time before The Beatles. Before Darwin. Before Plato. Before Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Before indoor plumbing. Before solar panels. Before Tik-Tok. Before Covid. Before meme-stocks. Before January 6.
The past isn’t prologue. The past, to paraphrase Nora Ephron’s mom, is copy. What we know today is the material for what can be next.
The flickers of change, manifest in the exquisite sensitivity of epigenetics and cymatics, and in the remarkable forgiveness of regeneration, show us possibility.
In the flickers of change we can see the future.