Epigenetic research is progressing at a rapid pace, and the findings are becoming more clear: genes aren’t an exact template for our body, they react to outside stimuli, such as choices of foods and lifestyle-induced health concerns.
There is current research in Germany from scientists at Helmholtz Zentrum München, in collaboration with researchers from Technical University of Munich and the German Center for Diabetes Research that show human eggs and sperm carry markers into the genes of the next generation, making them prone to health risks of their own.
The study, published in the genetics section of the Nature journal, observed a mouse model where the oocytes and sperm of mice who had developed type 2 diabetes, having been fed a high fat diet. It is unclear from the study exactly what type of fat was used, or what other elements were in the diet, but the mice were broken down into 3 study groups: high-fat, low-fat, and standard lab-chow. The mice that were on the high-fat diet gained the most weight and showed impaired glucose metabolism.
These mice had their eggs and sperm taken, and offspring were fertilized externally. These offspring were gestated in healthy, non-diabetic mice. They repeated this process for each of the three groups of mice. When the offspring of these three groups was fed the high-fat diet, the group whose parents had also been on the high fat diet gained the most weight. Broken down further, the female offspring of the high-fat parents gained the most amount of weight, where the males tended to have more severe glucose intolerance. This aspect of the findings is still under investigation.
This does show that both parents have an additive effect on this trait, and that the reverse is also true: the mice who had parents at a healthy weight and who were in the original low-fat chow group tended to gain the least weight from the high fat feedings.
Another recent study looks at human offspring, and theorizes that there is a pathway to reset the expression of certain genes by way of a regulatory gene network. Published in Cell, researchers from the University of Cambridge have looked at loci that are resistant to demethylation as keys to the development of the organism.
External methylation processes aside, this is compelling evidence for hopeful parents to be mindful of their own health. Helping clients to understand how their food choices can impact their children and the future genetic blueprint of humanity may spur them to making smarter choices for themselves and future members of their family. Currently, there is a widespread push on positive nutrition in the formative years of childhood, and this research is pointing us to understand that those formative years begin well before birth.