A new study says that you aren’t just what you eat … you are what your dad eats too.
Researchers at the University of Texas Austin have found that environmental factors like diet can heavily influence the genes of a man’s children, especially when it comes to health concerns like diabetes and heart disease. Study co-author Oliver Rando:
Knowing what your parents were doing before you were conceived is turning out to be important in determining what disease risk factors you may be carrying.
Researchers took two groups of male mice and fed one group standard mouse food while the other group was kept on a low-protein diet. (Females were fed all the same standard mouse fare.)
Once the mice reproduced, however, the offspring of the low-protein group showed a dramatic change in gene expression. That is, children of protein-deprived dads had way more genes responsible for cholesterol synthesis.
Our results show that offspring can inherit such acquired characters even from a parent they have never directly interacted with, which provides a novel mechanism through which natural selection could act in the course of evolution.
And this isn’t limited to mice. A study called the Överkalix Cohort Study looked at an isolated community in the far north of Sweden. The study found that poor duet during a man’s adolescence unleashed a slew of diseases from diabetes to obesity to cardiovascular disease in their kids and grandkids.
Our study begins to rule out the possibility that social and economic factors, or differences in the DNA sequence, may be contributing to what we’re seeing. It strongly implicates epigenetic inheritance as a contributing factor to changes in gene function.
Which brings us to the real culprit shoving its finger into the thumbwar between nature and nurture: Epigenetics.
NOVA’s “Ghost in Your Genes,” is a fascinating look at epigenetics—the “software” that tells our genes how to express themselves. They’re the little buggers responsible for the differentiation between your eye cells and your skin cells, which are genetically indistinguishable but clearly serve different functions.
What affects your epigenes? Here’s Rando again:
We don’t know why these genes are being reprogrammed or how, precisely, that information is being passed down to the next generation. We often look at a patient’s behavior and their genes to assess risk. If the patient smokes, they are going to be at an increased risk for cancer. If the family has a long history of heart disease, they might carry a gene that makes them more susceptible to heart disease.
But we’re more than just our genes and our behavior. Knowing what environmental factors your parents experienced is also important.
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