A study, published in Nature Communications, is the first to show that an environmental factor can change a baby’s DNA in the long term during the first days of development. Conducted over two years in 34 Gambian villages in West Africa, the results show that a child’s genes could be interpreted differently based on the mother’s diet.
WHY THE GAMBIA?
In the study, the diets of women in rural Gambia were analyzed , where residents experience major changes in their diet throughout the year as the area goes through dry and rainy seasons. Study author Robert Waterland, a nutritional epigeneticist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, shared with Scientific American: “The rainy season is often referred to as ‘the famine season’ and the dry season ‘the harvest season.’ During the rainy season, the villagers have much more agricultural work to do, gradually running out of food collected from the previous harvest. ”
WHY DOES DIET MATTER?
While in Gambia, the food basic diet of women throughout the year include rice, millet, peanuts and cassava , in the rainy season more vegetables consumed greens like spinach, which are high in folate (a nutrient found in most prenatal vitamins). Comparing the concentration of nutrients in the blood of 84 pregnant women who conceived during the peak of the rainy season and the same concentration for 83 women who conceived at the peak of the dry season, it was found that in the six genes studied, babies conceived during the rainy season had consistently higher rates of “methylation” in their DNA.
But diet was not the only factor to consider, many of these women also had greater physical activity during the rainy season, which contributes to the nutrients that are in the women’s body. Despite the study, though, the authors concluded that there was little evidence that physical environments could trigger permanent changes in the DNA of a human body.
WHAT IS METHYLATION?
A methylation is a so-called epigenetic modification of DNA, which can silence the expression of a gender. Generally, methylation is dependent on key nutrients such as choline, folate, methionine, vitamin B2, and vitamin B6 , and in this study methylation was related to various levels of nutrients in the mother’s blood.
The results of the studies represent the first demonstration in humans that a mother’s nutritional well-being at the time of conception can change the way her child’s genes will be interpreted, with a lifelong impact.
WHAT ARE THE SHORTCOMINGS OF THE STUDY?
For the purposes of this study, the researchers only looked at children conceived when they were two to eight months old, and did not follow how genetic changes might affect their development later in life. Since only six genes were studied, it can be even more difficult to know whether diet actually caused the highest rates of DNA methylation.
While other studies have shown that similar genetic changes can determine a child’s risk for some diseases , the answers to many of these questions are largely unknown at this time.
HOW CAN THE MOTHER ENSURE NUTRITIONAL BALANCE?
Just like expecting mothers to generally get advice on what kinds of foods to eat during pregnancy, similar advice seems to apply if you’re trying to conceive. If that’s the case, you have to make sure you have a solid nutritional balance with your OB / GYN or a nutritionist to ensure that both you and your baby get all the right foods in their diet for a healthy pregnancy. Similarly, it is important to consider increased physical activity , which means you may need to consume more nutrient-dense foods.