Evidence is increasing that the parents' lifestyle even before they have children have an effect on the
health of their offspring. A study from the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Basic Metabolic
Research explains how.
In a study published in Cell Metabolism, Associate Professor Roman BarrÃ¨s' and colleagues compared the
sperm cells between 13 lean men and 10 obese men. They were able to discover that in there were
different epigenetic marks in both that would affect their offspring's appetite.
However, obesity was not the only factor that the researchers discovered. After observing six men after a
year following gastric-bypass surgery, which is an effective way to lose weight, the researchers discovered
that there were around 4,000 structural changes in the sperm's DNA.
BarrÃ¨s says that they still need to further examine as to what these differences mean. However, it is
important to note that this is already evidence that sperm also carries genetic information about a man's
weight. Thus, weight loss in fathers may more likely influence the eating behavior of their children.
Epidemiological observations revealed that acute nutritional stress, e.g. famine, in one generation can
increase the risk of developing diabetes in the following generations, says BarrÃ¨s.
BarrÃ¨s also quoted a study that showed that the availability of food in a small Swedish village during a
time of famine is associated with the grandchildren having cardiometabolic diseases. The likely reason for
this is that the ancestors' gametes influenced the health of the grandchildren. Gametes carry epigenetic
marks, which change the structure of DNA once attached, thereby controlling the expression of genes.
The researchers proved that weight loss can change epigenetic information in male spermatozoa by
checking differences in small RNA expressions and DNA methylation patterns. This would obviously
consequently affect the development of the future embryo and the child's physiology. They were not
expecting to see such drastic changes in the epigenetics due to environmental pressure. Discovering that
lifestyle and environmental factors, such as a person's nutritional state, can shape the information in our
gametes and thereby modify the eating behavior of the next generation is, to my mind, an important find,
If these findings are viewed in the context of obesity, which is a worldwide heritable metabolic disorder
which is greatly affected by environmental factors such as diet and exercise, the fact that weight loss in
potential fathers has an effect on the eating behavior of their future children is quite groundbreaking.
Soetkin Verstehye, co-first author of the paper, says that the study increases awareness about the
importance of lifestyle, such as what we eat and if we do exercise, even prior to conception. The way we
eat and our level of physical activity before we conceive may be important to our future children's health
and development, says Verstehye.
This field of research is still quite young, but the emergence of this study changes the assumption that our
gametes carry genetic information that cannot be changed. Human traits that were once thought to be unchangeable could possibly be modifiable, in that what we do in our daily lives may actually affect not
only our personal health, but the health of our future generations as well.