March for Science


On Saturday April 22nd, I participated in the March for Science. I was expecting, given it was an election weekend in France,  not be many people would march. I was proven wrong, and it was great to see that the march had a good turnout!

Even though the March for Science originated in the US in response to funding cuts for research, the sentiment has been echoed around the world. Researchers everywhere, including Europe and Australia, are facing reduced funding, reduced support and a lack of recognition for the hard work they do.

Being a scientist is not a stable, long term career by any stretch of the imagination. Yet we persist with it out of passion, and out of understanding that society will not move forward, nor will issues such as (gasp) climate change be tackled, if we don’t have researchers. Thus, the need for continued funding.

So maybe each country, and even each researcher had a different reason for marching on the 22nd, but I for one was glad that people were motivated to do it, and for others to see just how many scientists there actually are!

Images of the March for Science (Paris)

The Paris March for Science.
“Breaking News: Science is more ffective than magic (p<0.05)”.
This may have been my favourite! “Sticking your head in the sand is not a solution to Global Warming…Your ass will still get hot!!”
“Effect size, not hand size, matters!”

Final Thought

The images shown are from the March for Science in Paris. Thanks to Rebecca Whelan and Rachel Macmaster for the photos.


The myth of the tissue-destroying white-tailed spider


Warning: if you do not like spiders, or are squeamish, maybe don’t read this post!

When I was at university, I found a red bump on my elbow that progressed to an actual hole. Many doctor’s visits and anti-inflammatory steroid injections later, I had an impressive scar and perhaps, an impressive story.

A persistent myth

My doctor told me that the hole was the result of a white-tailed spider (Lampona cylindrata and Lampona murina) bite, which causes tissue necrosis. Anyone in Australia has heard about people being bitten by a white-tailed spider and ending up requiring multiple skin grafts, or in the worse case scenario, amputation! In actual fact, spider bite-induced necrosis (necrotic arachnidism) is linked to only one spider, the Brown recluse (Loxosceles reclusa), which is found in the southcentral and southeastern areas of the United States. A compound found in the spider venom creates an acute immune response that results in inflammation-driven tissue destruction.

The link between the white-tailed spider and tissue necrosis is in fact an urban legend that has persisted since the 1980s.

So if the white-tailed spider doesn’t actually cause tissue necrosis, how did I get a hole in my elbow?

The jury is still out

The theories put forward focus on mycobacterium ulcerans infection at the bite sites resulting in an ulcer, or Staphylococcus aureus infection resulting in cellulitis (bacterial skin infection).

It is unlikely that the majority of the cases are the result of a M. ulcerans infection. Firstly, this type of infection is predominantly localised to tropical areas, and is a highly contagious infection. Secondly, studies have shown that the white-tailed spider venom does not carry this bacterium.

The second theory, that the tissue necrosis is from S. aureus infection resulting in cellulitis, is more likely. I couldn’t find a straightforward answer, but it seems that most researchers and clinicians feel that the S. aureus infection occurs from entering at the site of broken skin, i.e. a bite site that someone has scratched.

Final thought

So, despite a lack of evidence linking the white-tailed spider to necrotic arachnidism, the myth persists. I mean, what is going to have viewers glued to their TV or clicking on links:

“I lost my leg to a spider bite!” or, “I scratched a spider bite and now I have a bacterial infection!”


Tip: don’t enter tissue ulcer into Google images if you are of a weak constitution…!


This post was inspired by a recent post in Australian Geographic.;year=2016;volume=2;issue=2;spage=256;epage=259;aulast=Fegley

Disclaimer: the image used in this post is of the common ‘jumping spider’ and is not a white-tailed spider.

All watched over by machines of loving grace


I recently saw a documentary at the Palais de Tokyo as part of their exhibition entitled “All watched over by machines of loving grace.” The documentary, by BBC journalist Adam Curtis, was a fascinating insight into systems theory, cybernetics and ecology.

So of course, I took to the trusty scholarly search engines to find out more.

A (vicious) circle

Early scholars of the movement described nature as an electrical circuit, with amplifiers and dampeners of the natural order. In terms of ecology, systems theory described nature as a self-governing machine that responded to changes in the environment and adjusted to maintain a natural balance. In essence, an ordered cycle of life.

A systems theory cycle

This is called a feedback loop, i.e there is a cause and an effect. Following on from this, there can be another factor that then influences the original input.

Feedback loop


No, I’m not talking about robots!

Cybernetics is at the heart of systems theory, describing nature as a system that can be controlled and managed. Cybernetics considers nature in the bigger picture, looking at the response of the environment to changes.

Cybernetics introduced the concept of ‘negative feedback’, where in order to maintain equilibrium, where the output result that feeds back into the network is out of equilibrium, and is reduced to maintain the steady state.

Negative feedback loop

Earth as a spaceship

Cybernetics spawned the early environmental movement in the 1970s. This was based on the modelling of the ecological feedback loops. Scholars and activists realised that if a steady-state of ecological systems could not be maintained, irreversible damage or a catastrophe would occur.

This produced the idea of the earth as a spaceship. A self-contained object that required all systems to exist and work in harmony in order to maintain a sustainable environment within the ‘spaceship’. If not, water, air, or food would be compromised. In fact, cybernetics also contributed to the development of the Doomsday Clock. This is a metaphorical countdown to the end of the world based on the (dis)equilibrium of the population and our environment.

It’s not just science fiction

Systems theory feedback loops are used in everything from psychology (understanding people’s responses to the environment around them), to machine learning and computers and, to the development of the internet.

Final Thought

The most fascinating focus of the documentary was the realisation that man’s reliance on machines in order to ‘improve’ our quality of life as well as increase productivity in industry, has destroyed the idea of an ecological cybernetic system. The early theorists failed to anticipate that the negative feedback loop would not adjust to a rapidly changing human population, one that was at disequilibrium with its environment. This can be seen in the rapid extinction of animal and plant species, as well as the wealth of some countries versus the absolute poverty of their neighbours.

It really was such an interesting documentary, and I urge you all to watch it (link included in first section).


Bernard C. Patten and Eugene P. Odum. The American Naturalist, Vol. 118, No. 6 (Dec., 1981), pp. 886-895



The Communication Series: Critical Theory


So I have discussed the post-modernism approach from the feminist critique aspect, with a focus on the use of language and communication to dominate. However, the emerging theory also consists of the critical approach to understanding communication. The goal of this theory is to produce communication that is free from domination and to meet the needs of all individuals.

Am I too critical?

This means that we could say that the aim of critical theory is to deconstruct structures of communication (i.e. in organisations) so that domination cannot be used to control people. This theory states that communicative domination can be used not just as a coercive force, but can also be found in attitudes and culture. For example, how a company sees itself and its employees can also be a form of domination.

Dominating culture and attitudes

One study that shows an example of creating a culture through ‘dominating’ communication was the removal of temporary workers to cover absent employees. It was discussed how the remaining workers were forced to work harder to make up for their teammate’s absence. Instead of creating a workplace were the employees had close bonds, it created tension and negativity when they interacted with both their employers and with the absent employees. And in the absent person, there were feelings of guilt and a sense of betrayal. The attitude and culture to being “absent” was “dominating” the team.

Why have communication theories?

Although this is not a conventional form of domination, this use of the critical perspective showed the example that domination can be pervasive within an organisation, in many different forms.

So in this example, the questions would have been: “is there domination?”, “who is dominating?”, “how is it affecting attitude and culture?” Once these questions have been answered, the following questions of “how can we change the communication?” and “what are we trying to achieve?”, should be asked.

The aim of these theories is to understand how the communication occurs and the effect that it has. For organisations, understanding how the communication does and doesn’t work (by using the theories) allows for communication to be improved and change the culture and structure of a workplace.


Agger, Ben. (1991). Annual review of sociology, 105-131.

Alvesson, Mats, & Deetz, S. (2006). The Sage handbook of organization studies, 255.

Buzzanell, Patrice M, & Liu, Meina. (2005). Journal of Applied Communication Research, 33(1), 1-25.

Cheney, George, Christensen, Lars Thøger, Zorn Jr, Theodore E, & Ganesh, Shiv. (2010). Organizational communication in an age of globalization: Issues, reflections, practices: Waveland Press.

Cooper, Robert, & Burrell, Gibson. (1988).  Organization studies, 9(1), 91-112.

Deetz, Stanley A. (1982).  Western Journal of Communication (Includes Communication Reports), 46(2), 131-149.

Harvey, Michael, Speier, Cheri, & Novecevic, Milorad M. (2001). International Journal of Human Resource Management, 12(6), 898-915.

Johansson, Catrin, & Heide, Mats. (2008).  Corporate Communications: An International Journal, 13(3), 288-305. doi: doi:10.1108/13563280810893661

Mehta, Rajiv, Larsen, Trina, Rosenbloom, Bert, & Ganitsky, Joseph. (2006). Industrial Marketing Management, 35(2), 156-165.

Mumby, Dennis K., & Stohl, Cynthia. (1991). Discourse & Society, 2(3), 313-332. doi: 10.1177/0957926591002003004

Papa, Michael J, Singhal, Arvind, Ghanekar, Dattatray V, & Papa, Wendy H. (2000). Communication Theory, 10(1), 90-123.

Peng, Wei, & Litteljohn, David. (2001). International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management, 13(7), 360-363.

Shockley-Zalabak, Pamela S. (2012). Fundamentals of organizational communication (8th ed., pp. 27-68). Boston: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon.

Vaara, Eero, & Tienar, Janne. (2008).  Academy of Management Review, 33(4), 985-993.

van Vuuren, Mark, & Elving, Wim JL. (2008). Corporate Communications: An International Journal, 13(3), 349-359.

Honouring innovative women – the EU Prize for Women Innovators


As we all know, yesterday, March 8th was International Women’s Day. But what exactly does this day mean? Does it mean writing a social media post thanking your mum, discussing gender inequality in the workplace, or attending rallys’ and protests? Yes, if it raises awareness. Me, I watched the live stream of the EU Prize for Women Innovators.


Awarding female innovators

EU commissioner Carlos Moedas spoke that there were two reasons a prize like this is important: 1) to recognise the achievement of women, and 2) talk about female role models. As he said, in the history of the Nobel Prize, only 5% of the recipients have been women.

My interpretation of this is that we need a day to recognise and award the achievements of women outside of, and separate to, the achievements of men. Maybe some people are scoffing at this statement. However, as long as the majority of the awards in Innovation and Science go to men, separate recognition of women is needed.

During his speech, Commissioner Moeda commented that the irony of him ‘commanding women to inspire other women’, was not lost on him. He also said he hoped that women in innovation would “make their passion contagious to other women….and let it inspire another generation of women”.

I ask you, who are your role models? Are they male or female? I tried to think of who my role models were. And do you know what? None really came to mind. Does this mean that I never had a role model, or does it mean that there was no mentoring and fostering of passions and interests? I’m not sure, but after watching the live stream and hearing about the awardees, I hope that there is a new generation of women who are inspired by female role models.

I digress, I want to discuss the award ceremony.

From the 147 applicants, 12 finalists were selected. Of these 12, 4 awards were given. The first award was the ‘rising innovator award for women under 30′. The recipient was Kristina Tsvetanova. She is an engineer and the cofounder of a tactile tablet for people who are visually impaired.

Third place for the EU prize for Women Innovators was awarded to Claudia Gärtner. She has developed a ‘lab-on-a-chip’ that can be used to detect cancer or infectious diseases and other agents from a blood sample.

Second place went to Petra Wadström. She and her team have designed a solar device that heats and sterilises water!

And finally, first place was awarded to Michela Magas, who described herself as a member of the creative/tech industries, and has been involved in bringing together researchers with the designers, musicians and developers to bridge the gap between academia and industry and the arts and sciences.


In her speech, she stated (and I am paraphrasing) that ‘the role of the female perspective in innovation is driven by an attempt to understand human nature’. So in other terms, women bring a different perspective to innovation.

And if we are going to talk about role models, then her final statement of ‘what you have inside you can lift you over walls and across borders” was truly inspiring.

To hear about the achievements of these women was inspiring, for the lack of a better word, and it made me want to try harder at what I am doing so that I may be a role model for the next generation of women. Even if it is only my nieces that I inspire!

Final thought

And that, my friends, is what these awards, and International Women’s Day, is all about. Empowering women with the knowledge that we can aspire, achieve and receive recognition for what we do, and are trying to do.

The Communication Series: Using communication to dominate or empower


Post-modernism theory

As a result of growth in areas such as education, scientific knowledge and the progress of industry, society has seen an enhancement of life and culture. However with these changes, a problem of domination has arisen. This is when one person uses or withholds information and knowledge from another person in order gain control.

The heart of the emerging theory (consisting of the post modernism and critical analyses) is that organisations need to be flexible and less structured in order to change with society. Scholars write that post modernism uses knowledge, information and language to create a culture where the language can be used to either empower or to dominate.

 The feminist critique of communication

In honour of International Women’s Day, I am going to discuss a sub-genre of the post modernism approach, the feminist critique. This field challenges and questions the ideological and cultural perceptions of female roles in society, and how communication shapes and influences women’s roles within organisations.

Historically, patriarchal dominance has been used in organisations to engender women to particular roles, (for example, secretaries or nurses) positions seen as “women’s work” and perhaps beneath that which a man should perform. Key to this dominance and perpetuation of gender bias is the language used.

Further to this is the structured hierarchy of an organisation, women in more subservient positions, men in positions of power or positions involving decision-making and the relay of information.

Communication to dominate

One study examined taking maternity leave in regards to changes of identity and how workplace interactions affected leave choices. This study highlighted the problem within organisations to attach meaning and identities to the pregnant woman, often to their detriment.

Central to this was the communication used, as there were differences between what was said and what was done. By this I mean that communication between the women and their supervisors and their co-workers, was used as a means of controlling the decisions made by the women regarding their decision to take maternity leave. It was also found that the language used by the supervisors affected the attitude of co-workers to the women taking or returning from maternity leave.

The communication processes were often used to make the women feel guilt, shame and inferiority about taking leave. It was also used to convince both the women and their co-workers that their work performance would be inferior or less productive based on the decision to take or return from maternity leave.

Communication to empower

Here I am going to focus on an example concerning female dairy farmers in rural India, where researchers studied how breaking down patriarchal dominance and empowering women influenced social change within the communities.

Traditionally in these communities men dictated the control of money, interpersonal relationships and the distribution of work. But some villages were part of a program that was designed to provide female dairy farmers with greater education about dairying, running a co-op, and encouraged social clubs to increase interpersonal interactions.

As you would expect, changing the communication processes and empowering women benefited everyone!

Not only was more information about dairying, health and finances exchanged between the women, men in these villages said that there was a positive effect on the collaborative approach to dairying as well as in their family life!

In short, it was evident that when the women were given a voice, the whole village not only benefited but also underwent social changes. In contrast, more isolated women who were not in the social clubs felt less empowered and still felt they were under patriarchal control.

Final Thought

Communication, how it used, delivered and what is said, has the ability to empower or dominate, affect attitudes, culture and identity, and to create social changes to the benefit of all.

What we do not say can be as powerful as what we actually say.

The Communication Series


It might be surprising to know that communication, that is, how we communicate, what we say (even when we aren’t saying it) and how the communication is used, is quite a complicated field of study. In the next few posts that I am calling “The Communication Series”, I discuss the theories and analyses of communication.

Communication theories attempt to describe and give purpose to the way that the communication processes occur and have advanced, as well as attempting to suggest ways to improve communication by highlighting limitations.

These theories are generally applied to organisations where there are clear structural and power differences and communication can either enhance or impair an organisations success.

What you talkin’ about?

At the heart of communication is discourse, which encompasses the information and knowledge being relayed. Having said that, communication is not just a means in which information is moved between individuals, but it is a way of reinforcing and establishing ideas, ethics, structure, ethos as well as output and productivity.

Who you talkin’ to?

If we take a business as an example, effective communication is critical for its interaction with employees/team members as well as with the environment outside of the organisation. The communication is therefore essential to its success.

Continuing with the ‘business’ scenario, the communication can be between peers on the same hierarchal level, managers to employees, or boards of directors to managers. Outside of the business, it can be by customer feedback, profit, the ability of the organisation to expand, marketing/public image, or how the organisation compares with others within the same industry/field.

What did you just say?

What is important to remember is that communication is not just the act of saying words, but can also be from responding to stimuli or by the interpretation of facial expressions and behaviour. And let us not forget that it can also be electronically delivered, such as on a blog, for example….


If how and what we say can change, as well as the interpretation of the message, it demonstrates that communication is an ongoing, changing process. For effective communication to occur, incorporating the varying nature of communication is crucial. If we go back to the business scenario, how an organisation understands these changes and implements them to create new environments can define the organisation, i.e. the means and processes by which individuals within the organisation communicate in order to work together.

The many theory phenomena

Not every organisation is structured similarly, meaning the ways in which they communicate are vastly different. For example, how does communication work in organisations that are hierarchical versus organisations that are collaborative? How do the organisations tackle social and cultural changes, and how do they use communication to incorporate these changes? Hence, just as there are different styles of communication and organisational structures, there are also different theories that can be applied to how communication works within these organisations.

The three main theories are functional, centred and emerging.

“The Communication Series Theories”

The functional theory can be described as performance based, focusing on how messages move through an organisation. It focuses on how rules and regulations resulting in output and yield, shape the communication. This theory focuses on structure, and does not apply well to changing methods of communication and culture.

The centred (or meaning-centred) approach asks how symbolism, stories and emotions are used to construct social structures and personal relationships. This approach encourages incorporating change and the ever-changing nature of communication.

Emerging communication theory focuses on newer and more critical theories that are being applied to communication. In the following posts I will discuss two to of these newer theories – critical and post-modernism.


All sources used throught “The Communication Series” will be placed in the final post. However if you are genuinely interested in a source, send me a message!

A post to remember?


When I was young, I used to ask my mum what it was like when she was a child. Her response of ‘I don’t remember it was so long ago’ always astounded me. I was convinced that I would remember everything! Flash forward, and while I have some strong, distinct memories from my childhood, much of it is gone, just like my mum’s. So what are memories? How are they formed and stored and, how do we lose them?

I remember

Memory is the retention of knowledge. Both neuroscientists and physiologists agree that this is a broad term covering different aspects of knowledge accumulation. In a general sense, this covers whether the knowledge is purely emotional, linked to a time and place, or if it is related to environmental stimuli.

Much of what has been gleaned about memory comes from medical conditions in which people cannot retain memory or demonstrate memory loss. For example, in individuals with Alzheimer’s, it has been demonstrated that the hippocampus region of the brain is necessary to memory formation. It has been found that there are certain proteins in the hippocampus that are targeted by beta-amyloid peptides (small proteins that are found in the brain tissue of individuals with Alzheimer’s) that result in memory loss. Restoring the levels of these proteins in mouse models of Alzheimer’s restores the ability to learn and remember.

The hippocampus has been shown to be integral in the formation of episodic memories. An episodic memory is one which recall is via the stimuli of a place and/or time. New episodic memories can use the ‘parameters’ of a previous episodic memory and retrieval can involve thoughts and emotions of other memories. This can be why one place or emotion can trigger a multitude of memories! This has been shown experimentally from imaging of the brain. The area of the brain involved in performing an activity associated with a particular place was the same area used to conduct recall of an episodic memory associated with the same location. It has also been demonstrated that stimulation of the hippocampus produces a similar neural response to novel stimuli.

I will remember for ever and ever

So how is it that we fail to remember a conversation we had yesterday but can recall the phone number of the first house we ever lived in?

This comes down to short-term memory versus long-term memory.

Short-term memory is often also referred to as working memory (WM), and is retained for approximately 15-30 seconds. These memories are in a readily available state and usually apply to a task being performed. Repetition of the task or repeated exposure to the stimuli shunts the memory to long-term recall.

A process termed long term potentiation (LTP), is the persistent strengthening of neural cell structures called synapses in response to recent repeated activity. These synapses also exhibit plasticity, a term for the ability of synapses to weaken or strengthen in response to increases or decreases in activity. Memories that ‘fade’ are a phenomenon that neuroscientists call memory extinctionwhere a conditioned response is forgotten as older memories are replaced with new experiences.

Physiologists have demonstrated that dopamine plays a role in memory formation, in particular short-term memory. Neurons in the hippocampus that are receptive to dopamine will respond rapidly to novel stimuli, but as the stimuli become more familiar, the cells no longer respond. And, interfering with dopamine can block LTP, while making cells more receptive to dopamine enhances LTP.

As it is known that there are also learned responses based on both reward and behaviour, how are memory systems (i.e. WM vs LTP vs reward-based memory formation) recruited?

It is the general consensus that in the case of dopamine and LTP, it is only for stimuli that will be behaviourally advantageous. For other memory systems, recruitment of a system is based on the anticipated demands of a memory and can involve a feedback mechanism that predicts the outcome from interaction with stimuli.

This is where it can become a little confusing! The different parts of the brain control different memory systems. As discussed, the hippocampus is involved in LTP while the prefrontal cortex, for example, is involved in the maintenance and manipulation of WM.

One study demonstrated that if an individual was distracted or had increased delay between memory recall during a task that required WM, LTP increased with a decline in WM accuracy. The authors concluded that the anticipation of increased difficulty in completing or performing WM tasks led to a shift away from WM in order to preserve high-level performance.

It’s in the genes?

Very little is known about the biology of memory. Studies into Alzheimer’s have yielded much of the information about proteins that are crucial to retaining memories.

Neuroscientists combine the memory tests with investigating what is going on at the genomic level, and have found that different genes are activated along with differences in protein production. This can depend on the memory system. However, it is increasingly obvious that epigenetics plays a very important role. Modifications to DNA and proteins that change their activity without changing the genetic or protein code are rapid and occur in response to environmental stimuli. Furthermore, these changes are plastic, which as discussed, is important to memory formation and retention. This is an exciting area of research, with much more to come!

It has been demonstrated that diet can affect memory. In particular, a high fat diet (HFD) can result in poor memory retention, and in animal studies, disrupts learning and performance. It is known that a HFD results in insulin resistance of cells in the hippocampus that impairs insulin signalling.

One study observed that mice on a HFD exhibited reduced exploration time of a novel object, and when re-introduced to the object, spent more time investigating the new object compared to control diet mice. These results indicated that both WM and LTP were affected by the HFD. When the diets were changed, the effects on memory were reversed. Food for thought?!

 Liar, liar pants on fire!

The demonstrated plasticity of memory formation and recall can also result in false memories. A false memory is the recall of experiencing something that wasn’t actually experienced.

There are two types of false memories, misinformation-formed and spontaneous false memory formation.

Studies have demonstrated that children seem particularly susceptible to spontaneous false memory formation, while in adults sleep deprivation can be a cause. If a person is sleep-deprived at the time of being presented with the stimuli and later provided with misinformation, their recall of the events can be different to what occurred.

This has also been demonstrated in individuals who exhibit ‘total recall’. These people have an ability to recall memories in rich detail unaided by mnemonics or memory aids. Memory recall from these individuals can also be corrupted by misinformation or misleading suggestions.

I forget

With all that we have learned about memory formation and retention, what about age-related memory loss?

Age-related memory loss is associated with a reduction in the activity of genes involved in plasticity, degradation or loss of neurons, and decreased plasticity. The hippocampus in particular appears to exhibit age-related decay that can lead to a loss of autobiographical recall.

However, not all memory systems are affected by age. One study showed that there were not age-related differences in the ability to learn configural tasks, but that there were delayed response times i.e. older adults repeated the tasks more slowly. The older adults did show a deficit in recalling tasks associated with newly learned episodic memories, with higher false memory recall. This was further confounded if several cues could initiate the retrieval of a memory.

However, all is not lost. A recent study demonstrated that the injection of blood from young mice could counteract ageing at the molecular, structural, functional and cognitive levels in the hippocampus of aged mice!

While the authors observed these changes, they had no data to explain why and how the changes occurred. They cited that it was possibly ‘pro-youthful’ factors that promote regeneration of decaying tissue or affect the activity of ‘pro-ageing’ factors. Current literature suggests that stem cells in the young mouse blood may play a role.

Stress is also linked to poor memory retention and recall, as is a lack of sleep.

Final thought

While it appears much is known about memory, it is acknowledged that there is still a long way to go to understand the brain and memories. Unfortunately, progress is generally made by understanding how something has gone wrong.


You are what you eat?


We all know that our environment affects our health and well being. Breathing polluted air results in respiratory problems, being out in the sun too long results in sunburn, not having enough sunlight can result in seasonal-affective disorder, exercising improves cardiovascular health….the list goes on.

Researchers like to know why and how the environment can control our bodies and cellular functions. What we know now, is that some people are genetically programmed or predisposed to react to environmental cues.

This is most commonly observed in the case of cancer risk, and a well known example is the influence of diet on colorectal cancer (CRC) risk. World wide, CRC is the 3rd most common cancer in men and the 2nd most common cancer in women. In Australia, CRC was the cause of death for 1.1% of the males and 1.12% of the females who died in 2015.

CRC has a high hereditary factor, where a family history of CRC is a greater predictor of a person’s risk for developing the disease. CRC most often arises due to mutations that disrupt normal cellular processes. Commonly, these mutations can be found in genes that encode for molecules that repair DNA following exposure to damaging agents.

The good, the bad, the ugly.

So, how does diet influence risk if we know that there are hereditary risk factors? In order to discuss this, I want to share a quote that appeared in my social media news-feed the other day:

‘Eat bad food and bad genes are activated. If the same person, with bad genes activated from bad food, eats good food……those bad genes turn off and good genes turn on. Genes don’t control anything, they react to our environment…..mostly our food choices…… The “genetic causation of disease myth” is intended to make sure the public never understands that their food choices control the way their genes express themselves’.

There are so many problems with this statement. First, let’s start with ‘bad genes’. Is there such a thing? No. Genes exist because they produce molecules (proteins) that cells need.

Sometimes, a mutation can occur that can alter the function of the gene or of the proteins it produces. In a sense, it could now be a ‘bad gene’ but, eating ‘good food’ cannot turn off a ‘bad gene’. It is possible that the author of this post is confusing epigenetics with genetics. Epigenetics, as I have discussed previously, is the alteration of gene expression without changing the DNA sequence, and can be influenced by external factors such as diet. It is also possible that the author is confusing physiological effects with the genetic effects. An example of this could be the development of Type II diabetes due to obesity, where the body stops reading cues in regards to glucose production and consumption. But it is important to remember that this is also controlled by genes!

There is control, and then there is controlling.

Second, ‘Genes don’t control anything, they react to our environment. This simply is not  true. Genes control everything. However, in turn, genes can be influenced by other factors, which changes how they affect or ‘control’ cellular processes. If we come back to the epigenetics thread, the change in expression of gene can be altered by diet, but the alteration induced by the diet influences the expression of another gene producing the epigenetic change. Therefore, genes are still controlling expression!

CRC risk is influenced by both genetics and environment.

Finally, the last statement ‘The “genetic causation of disease myth” is intended to make sure the public never understands that their food choices control the way their genes express themselves’. This brings us back to the CRC diet-associated risks, where genetic predisposition can be enhanced by diet. In this sense, diet increases the risk of developing CRC in predisposed individuals, but is not the cause. Someone following the guidelines for ensuring good bowel health, who doesn’t smoke, exercises daily and eats plenty of  ‘good foods’ as the author of the post suggests, could still develop CRC due to the familial risk.


Final Thought

Massive genome sequencing studies have demonstrated that there are untold gene-environment connections that can influence cancer risk and other physiological alterations. However, as not everyone has cancer (as an example), it is obvious that it needs to be the right ‘mix of ingredients’ to initiate the disease. For example, studies are now showing that gut microflora can influence predisposition to disease!

Humans have evolved, and this means alterations to genes, in response to the environment, but the genes have also influenced how we respond to these environmental cues!



Statistics obtained from the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the World Health Organisation