A new study conducted by researchers from the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Basic Metabolic Research, and published in the journal Cell Metabolism, makes an exposé of how children might be influenced by their parents’ lifestyle and the environment they inhabited well before the former were born.
The comparison of sperm cells taken from 13 lean men with those obtained from 10 obese men shows that the two sets have different epigenetic marks (characterising changes caused by modifications in gene expression) that might affect the appetite of the subsequent generation.
Another interesting finding was made after the researchers examined the sperm of 6 men before and after gastric-bypass surgery (an operation that results in weight loss). It appears that the intervention impacts upon the epigenetic data encoded in the sperm cells: around 4,000 structural alterations in the sperm cell DNA were spotted. These changes happened over the course of time before the surgery, directly after, and the year that followed.
The results suggest that the sperm bears information pertaining to a man’ weight, and that the loss of weight in fathers might affect their future offspring’s eating behaviour, as explained by author Romain Barrès.
Barrès also mentions past observations revealing how acute nutritional stress such as famine might lead to an increased risk of diabetes for the generations to come. He also cites another study that linked famine with the risk of developing cardiometabolic diseases among grandchildren. The health of the following generations might have been affected by their forefathers’ gametes that carry specific epigenetic marks such that the DNA is ultimately modified.
The team identified the molecular carrier found in gametes that might be accounting for this effect. They spotted differences in RNA expressions and DNA methylation patterns, showing that weight loss can alter the epigenetic information in sperms. This will eventually affect the development of the embryo that contains the sperm such that the very physiology of the offspring is modified.
The findings are particularly pertinent in the world of today where obesity has become an epidemic. Another author of the study, Ida Donkin, believes that the health of fathers should be taken into consideration even before conception happens, as the study lays great emphasis on the critical importance of lifestyle, specially pertaining to diet.