The Mechanome: Going Beyond the Genome
by Katy Bowman, M.S.
“Mechanical stress [or strains] alter the structural and functional properties of cells at the cellular, molecular, and genetic levels.”
- Davies and Tripathi, 1993 (emphasis added).
If you attended high school in the last 100 years you were probably presented with a cellular model that basically has a cell’s nucleus containing all the information necessary for cellular replication, with the genetic code (DNA) determining a cell’s behavior. Following this model, the state of every tissue (made up of cells) and every organ (made up of tissues), and every system (made up of these organs) is dictated by our genes.
In more recent studies, it has been observed that simply having a particular gene doesn’t automatically create a particular outcome. This means, for example, that you and your neighbor could both have a breast cancer gene, but only one (or neither) of you gets cancer. The fact that genes behave differently has led to an emerging field of study called epigenetics, a branch of biology studying how a cell’s environment can affect the behavior of the cell itself.
There is a good chance you have heard of the genome and been presented with the model of genetic pre-determinism but chances are slim you have heard of the mechanome and the biological state that results from the distribution of forces to the tissues and to the cells and to the molecules that make up your body.
The mechanical environment is perhaps the most important, but certainly the most ignored aspect of a cell’s environment. Mechanotransduction is the process by which cells sense and respond to mechanical signals. Mechanical signals are being created 100 percent of the time by the way we move and how we are positioned when not moving. Movement (not only exercise, but every gesture big or small made by the human body) loads the body’s tissues, and the body’s cells. Every cell, much like the human body itself, contains a rigid network called a cytoskeleton, similar in function to our bones. Most recent findings in cellular biomechanics show that the deformation of the cell itself, and the load placed on the cytoskeleton, affect each cell’s behavior, including how the cell regenerates.
The study of mechanotransduction phenomena is “new” — most research occurring in the last two decades — but it was common knowledge in scientific circles over 100 years ago, thanks in part to German anatomist Julius Wolff (of Wolff’s Law fame). Today, there is a large volume of scientific research regarding the effects physical loads have on biological experience. Still, medical science — the group most in charge of “fixing” our health issues — focuses on genetic pre-determinism and chemical precursors. This is not to castigate the medical community but to highlight the lag time between current research and its application. It’s also important to note that adding the prerequisites necessary to comprehend more recent advancements in mechanobiology to existing curricula would increase the college experience by years or would require a major relinquishment of “well known” yet inaccurate tenets of health. It is simply not feasible for a doctor or health practitioner to “know everything,” and it is also important for medical practitioners to realize that discounting information simply because “that’s not what they learned in school” can be a major scientific misstep.
As someone dealing with a general public who is grappling with many health issues, it is clear that the idea of genetic pre-determinism is still rampantly perpetuated. Despite scientific understanding that virtually all cells adapt to accommodate their mechanical environment and that biochemical precursors for genetic expression might not even be necessary, our physical experience is repeatedly presented as an event that has little to do with our choices — in this case, how we have utilized our body since birth.
There is a strong chance that, at your last doctor’s appointment, your doctor mentioned something about the genetics of your condition and nothing about how the mechanical strain to a cell can bypass the nucleus and influence cellular outcome. Even today, 100 years later, anatomy and physiology students are presented with the “nucleus controls the cell” model; the more advanced cellular model only makes an appearance if one happens into a graduate-level biology class specifically for mechanists (mechanobiology). The result of this oversight is that the keepers of the health information we collectively depend on are not trained in the science of load application and the mechanical properties of load as it transfers throughout the body.
So, the general lack of awareness of the mechanome should not muddle the fact that genetic organization and expression, as well as most chemical precursors, are regulated mechanically. When you understand this, you quickly see how searching for a health solution without considering one’s “movement environment” inevitably produces results limited in scope and benefit.
Recently, thanks to breakthroughs in nanotechnology, scientists can see better how cells transfer a load to each other, and how this load creates adaptations in individual cells that result in a tissue outcome. Understanding the process should eventually help clinicians recognize many common health issues (including such common diseases as osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, cancers, and collagenopathies) as diseases of mechanotransduction and more importantly, aid scientists in designing more specific load-intervention therapies.
It is seemingly fantastic, yet evident: the sum total of how you have moved has created loads, and these loads have contributed to your health outcomes on a cellular level. So why are mechanically induced diseases so very prevalent in our culture? According to researchers utilizing an evolutionary perspective, the mis-loading is due to the vast difference between the ways we move in a modern environment and the natural frequencies of human movement found over the bulk of the human timeline. Our bodies, without the loads they’ve spent millions of years adapting to, have lost the context necessary for optimal development and function.
When it comes to our wellbeing, our thoughts are King — not the nucleus. Thinking about ourselves as a series of inevitable conditions rather than a series of habits interferes with finding the solution to a health issue. The information contained in your genome does not exist in a vacuum. When troubleshooting your health it is extremely helpful to keep “your loads” in mind.
For many, the notion “we are how we move” is a radical one. Furthermore (as I cover more in depth in my upcoming book), the loads created through fitness exercise have little in common with the loads your body requires. There are many dedicated people with diligent exercise habits who still experience diseases of mechanotransduction. Accepting that exercise does not equal movement is a first step to wellness, but requires a huge shift in the way we currently think.
(Pause for think-time.)
Allow space for a new paradigm in your mind. The progression of science has historically been halted by resistance in accepting new information — both by the science-of-the-day consumer and the scientists themselves.
If you are an info-consumer it is helpful to release the feeling you’ve been duped or scammed by science or by your healthcare providers. Science, by definition, is always developing and adapting its understanding. Just as our body requires movement, so do the invisible tenets that influence our decision-making. Scientists: let us see clearly how culture influences our processing of information, even at the so-called “above culture” level of the scientific method.
Now, it is time to move.
“To continue the linguistic, information-theory metaphor within which genetic theory was now to be formulated, the directed synthesis of RNA on DNA was termed transcription, and the synthesis of protein on the RNA was termed translation. DNA had become the master-molecule, and the nucleus in which it was located had assumed its patriarchal role in relation to the rest of the cell. It is hard to know which had more impact on the future directions of biology — the determination of the role of DNA in protein synthesis, or the organizing power of the metaphor within which it was framed.”
- Steven Rose, Lifelines: Biology, Freedom, Determinism, London, Penguin, 1997
Katy Bowman, M.S., is an internationally recognized biomechanist, focusing her expertise to address our country’s epidemic-level health crisis and the mechanical causes of disease.
Katy teaches from a unique platform, which is holistic, unfailingly scientific, and delivered with the compassion necessary to truly open people’s minds. With her advanced science education, Katy has brought to thousands of people the insight necessary to see the mechanical – as opposed to hormonal or genetic – causes of female pelvic floor disorder, bone regeneration, and foot disease. Her simple corrective program provides a level of relief generally considered impossible. In addition to directing the Restorative Exercise Institute, Katy is an author, speaker, producer, and on-air talent. She is the author of Every Woman’s Guide to Foot Pain Relief (Benbella, 2011), and Alignment Matters (Propriometrics Press, 2013).
Her new book, Move Your DNA (Propriometrics Press) will be released Fall 2014.
To learn more about Katy’s work visit her very popular blog, Katy Says.