It used to be thought that we are born with our own set of genes – which decide everything from how we look to our risk of developing certain diseases – and this was set in stone for our whole life.
Now we are beginning to understand it is more complicated than that, with Southampton research revealing that a mother’s diet and lifestyle during pregnancy can cause changes to her unborn child’s genes, including increasing their risk of obesity later in life.
Make a mark
The diet and lifestyle of pregnant mothers leaves marks on their unborn babies’ genes (known as methylation) that determines how active they are – acting like an on/off switch.
Professor Karen Lillycrop, an expert in epigenetics at the University of Southampton, has shown that methylation of the gene SLC64A whilst a woman is pregnant can therefore be used to predict the risk of childhood obesity.
Identifying those at risk
The study team searched the entire DNA to find genes which can be used as ‘predictors’ of obesity and found SLC6A4 – a gene involved in the process which converts food and nutrients into energy. More methylation of SLC6A4 in umbilical cord blood was strongly linked to obesity.
While methylation marks can change throughout life, they are easier to alter earlier in life. The sooner they can be detected, the more likely it is that lifestyle changes will work.
The researchers now hope to develop a test to identify which children are most at risk of obesity and to work with and advise parents on how to reduce this.
“There is a chance to reverse the marks,” said Professor Lillycrop, “so if we can identify children at risk, hopefully we can intervene.”
As the marks are laid down in the womb, mothers can help prevent childhood obesity by following a healthy diet and lifestyle during pregnancy.
Whilst advice for pregnant women remains the same (to eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly), Professor Lillycrop believes these results could provide extra motivation as they show the long-term effects on children’s health.
“I think showing that the environment can chemically affect the genes of the child might trigger a stronger response in people,” she comments. “It’s actually affecting your genes and the genes of your child.”
The team is now working on new research trialling a special diet and exercise programme for pregnant women, as well as looking into how fathers’ diets play a part.
Posted on Wednesday 3 April 2019