When I was a kid, I used to travel to my local mall with all of my friends. At the mall, one of the coolest stores to visit was called Sharper Image. This store covered the market of overpriced knick-knacks and anything that was the newest craze. On one mall adventure at Sharper Image, I came across what appeared to be large, misshaped headphones. As I attempted to put the headphones on my head, I received several “what the hell is that kid doing” looks from the other guest in the store. I did not realize at the time, but I was actually in possession of the popular ‘bellybuds’. These were headphones specifically used by pregnant women to play music for their developing child in the hopes that this would result in them birthing the next Mozart or Einstein. This is just one attempt, of the many, humans have made to somehow influence the development of their child through the environment the child experiences. Another way humans influence child development is what we provide in our genetic code via our DNA. For awhile, it was thought that we only passed on our DNA to our offspring and this was the primary means of inheritance. However, until recent research out of the University of Adelaide has shown that this is not necessarily the case.
At the University of Adelaide, Dr. Sarah Robertson and her colleagues have been looking at how information not encoded in DNA can be passed from parents to their offspring. These non-genetic changes are commonly referred to as “epigenetic”. Like typical genetics, epigenetics involves our DNA, but unlike traditional genetics, epigenetics is not something coded in the DNA, but rather an alteration to the DNA. A good example of this is a slight chemical alteration to DNA (for instance, methylation) can result in DNA behaving differently in terms of when genes are expressed and how much they are expressed. What Robertson and numerous other researchers have discovered is that epigenetic marks in parental DNA are actually passed onto their offspring. These alterations can influence the offspring development and that’s not always a good thing. If the parents are unhealthy – by toxin exposure, smoking, or by being overweight – this can result in the alteration of the epigenetic pattern in the parental DNA. These epigenetic patterns are then passed onto their offspring at conception. The resulting epigenetic alterations have been shown to cause offspring to be more likely to gain weight and become more anxious, to name just a few examples.
Armed with this new insight, soon-to-be parents can start to consider how their life styles may influence their future children even long after they are born. This research does not only show how living unhealthy can negatively influence offspring development (surprise, surprise), but also shows how important it is to be healthy long before when you are considering having a child due to the epigenetic marks you will pass on. Potentially, there will be a day when parents can truly understand how to give their children the best possible chance at a healthy and productive life without the need to wear those ridiculous ‘bellybuds’.
Michelle Lane et al. (2014). Parenting from before conception. Science 345, 756.
Nick Batora is a Ph.D graduate student in the Department of Genetics at the University of Georgia. He also is a plant biologist, enjoys hiking, and once received a gold ribbon in a hip-hop dance competition in Detroit, Michigan. For more information you can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org