How to give your child a genetic advantage in life
It’s common knowledge that the nutrition of a pregnant mother and genetic diseases can affect your child, but did you know your everyday diet and even experiences can be imprinted into your DNA, and eventually your progeny’s? That means your current lifestyle choices will have ramifications for your offspring!
Until the 1930s, it was believed only your genes would be passed to your offspring; things like memories and habits accumulated in your lifetime did not affect your descendants. The only thing that could change your genetic code was a rare mutation. But this is not necessarily true, which is where epigenetics, the study of molecules around the DNA that control gene expression, comes in. Epigenetics also plays a large role in cell differentiation, explaining why we have different cell types with the same genome (Yandell).
Examples of natural epigenetic modification are methylation and acetylation, which is the addition of the chemical compounds, methyl and acetyl to your histones, a protein that coils and packages your DNA. The former causes DNA to coil tighter, effectively silencing the gene while the latter uncoils it allowing its expression. Histone modifications of various genes commonly due to many lifestyle choices like stress, behaviour, and smoking. Epigenetics has also been shown to play a role in the development of obesity, various cancers, and ADHD (Simmons).
One study by the European Journal of Human Genetics, found a startling observation. In 20th century Sweden, the weather conditions greatly affected people’s diets and inadvertently, their risk for disease. Researchers found that the grandchildren of those who had plenty to eat during the latter part of their childhood, developed conditions such as diabetes and heart disease and had shorter life spans. On the other hand, descendants of those who were starved in the critical period before puberty, due to tough winter famine, had significantly fewer health problems, living on average 32 years longer than their counterparts.
Another factor is chemical exposure. Bisphenol A (BPA), commonly found in plastics, has been linked to a whole host of health issues like diabetes, heart disease and liver problems (Ehrenburg). However, interestingly, when mouse pups were exposed to BPA after birth, whether or not the harmful effects manifested depended on their lifestyle as an adult. BPA-exposed mice eating regular diets were healthy but when switched to a high-fat diet had many metabolic problems like higher cholesterol and larger livers, more so than non-BPA-exposed mice on the same diet (Saey). The study showed that BPA modified the histones of the gene controlling metabolic activity, but the gene activity didn’t change until adult lifestyle changes unlocked them.
The field of epigenetics can be our key to, in our lifetimes, change the genetic legacy we pass on. However, we still don’t know which epigenetic tags are remembered generation to generation or what epigenetic studies on lab animals may mean for humans. So don’t go starving yourself but keep in mind good nutrition and being active will give your child a genetically better foundation in life.