12 January - 20 June 2016

Epigenetic effects of a mother's diet on her child's DNA

7 May 14

Maternal nutrition during the period surrounding conception can affect the DNA of her child, suggests a research study from the MRC International Nutrition Group. The researchers specifically sought to determine whether the diet of the mother at the time of conception influenced the tagging of particular gene regions with methyl groups. This methylation is what is known as an epigenetic modification to DNA - that is, there is no alteration to the DNA sequence, but the gene expression (and therefore the phenotype) is changed. With attachment of methyl groups to DNA, the effect is a silencing of the gene.

The researchers studied a group of women in rural Gambia, where significant differences in dietary patterns between the rainy and dry seasons - due to the very seasonal climate combined with a high dependence on own-grown foods in the population - made it straightforward to compare two groups with different maternal diets. The researchers selected 167 women to take part in the study, 84 of whom conceived during the peak rainy season and 83 during the peak dry season. They then profiled maternal blood samples for nutrients linked to methylation (such as cysteine and homocysteine), and considered these findings alongside the DNA methylation found in blood and hair follicle samples from their 2-8 month old infants. It was found that infants from rainy season conceptions had consistently higher rates of methyl groups present in all six genes that were studied, and that these were linked to various nutrient levels in the mother's blood.

Epigenetic effects on DNA have previously been seen in mice, with studies having shown that coat colour can be influenced by the mother's diet. This study in the Gambia is the first evidence of such an effect in humans; the findings highlight the need for a well-balanced diet before conception and during pregnancy, and demonstrate in particular that the time around conception is crucial. Professor Andrew Prentice, head of the Nutrition Theme at the MRC Unit, The Gambia, said "Our on-going research is yielding strong indications that the methylation machinery can be disrupted by nutrient deficiencies and that this can lead to disease. Our ultimate goal is to define an optimal diet for mothers-to-be that would prevent defects in the methylation process. Pre-conceptional folic acid is already used to prevent defects in embryos. Now our research is pointing towards the need for a cocktail of nutrients, which could come from the diet or from supplements." [BBC, The Scientist]

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