DURHAM, N.C. Experiments in animals have provided additional and tantalizing evidence that what a pregnant mother eats can make her offspring more susceptible to disease later in life.
This susceptibility is the result of a process that alters how a gene is expressed without actually changing or mutating the gene itself. Appreciation of this phenomenon has spawned a new avenue of genetic research known as epigenetics, a name which refers to changes happening over and above the gene sequence without altering its code.
In their most recent experiments, Duke University Medical Center investigators demonstrated that exposure within the womb to bisphenol A (BPA), an ubiquitous chemical used in the production of plastics, caused noticeable changes in the offspring without altering any of the offsprings genes. Additionally, the researchers discovered that administration of folic acid or genistein, an active ingredient in soy, during pregnancy protected the offspring from the negative effects of BPA.
The results of the study, which was supported by the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Energy, were published early online by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science July 30.
In their experiments, the Duke team studied a well-documented strain of animals known as agouti mice. Normally, these mice tend to be slender and brown. While past epigenetic research at Duke has focused on nutrients given to pregnant agouti mice, the current experiments represented the first tests of a potential environmental toxin.
The researchers found that when the mouse mothers received BPA, a statistically significant increase in the number of their offspring were born with a yellow coat. Previous studies with these mice have shown that yellow agouti mice are at a much greater risk for diabetes, obesity and cancer.