In a study of nutrition's effects on development, the scientists showed they could change the coat color of baby mice simply by feeding their mothers four common nutritional supplements before and during pregnancy and lactation. Moreover, these four supplements lowered the offspring's susceptibility to obesity, diabetes and cancer.
Results of the study are published in and featured on the cover of the Aug. 1, 2003, issue of Molecular and Cellular Biology.
"We have long known that maternal nutrition profoundly impacts disease susceptibility in their offspring, but we never understood the cause-and-effect link," said Randy Jirtle, Ph.D., professor of radiation oncology at Duke and senior investigator of the study. "For the first time ever, we have shown precisely how nutritional supplementation to the mother can permanently alter gene expression in her offspring without altering the genes themselves."
In the Duke experiments, pregnant mice that received dietary supplements with vitamin B12, folic acid, choline and betaine (from sugar beets) gave birth to babies predominantly with brown coats. In contrast, pregnant mice that did not receive the nutritional supplements gave birth predominantly to mice with yellow coats. The non-supplemented mothers were not deficient in these nutrients.
A study of the cellular differences between the groups of baby mice showed that the extra nutrients reduced the expression of a specific gene, called Agouti, to cause the coat color change. Yet the Agouti gene itself remained unchanged.
Just how the babies' coat colors changed without their Agouti gene being altered is the most exciting part of their research, said Jirtle. The mechanism that enabled this permanent color change
Contact: Becky Levine
Duke University Medical Center