Link found between low birth weight and DNA from mothers

Using a unique set of data collected over 30 years and six generations of captive-bred monkeys, researchers have found the first evidence that low birth weight is linked to a type of DNA only passed along by females.

"This is why, when it comes to birth weight, we tend to be more like our mother than our father," said James Ha, a University of Washington research professor of psychology and lead author of a study published in the current issue of the American Journal of Primatology. The National Institutes of Health funded the research.

"We definitely think that our findings will hold up when human data becomes available," he said. "Some people have suggested that birth weight in a number of species including humans is closer to the mother than the father. But there never has been adequate data to test a hypothesis of cytoplasmic DNA inheritance. Instead, human research has focused on environmental causes."

While the new study links maternal genetics to low birth weight, it does not mean pregnant women should ignore known environmental risk factors such as alcohol, drugs and a poor diet that contribute to the birth of underweight babies. Ha said that there is more than one type of DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, the material in cells that carries the genetic code and transmits hereditary traits.

"People tend to look at DNA as only being inside the nucleus of a cell. However, there also is DNA in the cytoplasm that surrounds the nucleus inside the cell membrane. Some of this DNA is found in mitochondria."

Mitochondria are structures that are the so-called "powerhouses" that control energy production in cells and mitochondrial inheritance is only passed along to offspring by the mother. He said the connection between how much energy is produced and low birth weight "makes so much sense."

Ha calculated that cytoplasmic DNA from mitochondria is responsible for 9 percent of the variability in birth we

Contact: Joel Schwarz
University of Washington

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