From the air they breathe, to the food on their dinner plates, mothers know the importance of making healthy choices during pregnancy. Numerous studies have demonstrated how nutritional and lifestyle factors – from getting enough vitamins to avoiding tobacco and alcohol – lead to healthier newborns. However, similar research on how fathers’ choices affect their offspring is limited.
But new findings from Duke University published in the February edition of BMC Medicine may provide a deeper understanding of how a father’s lifestyle influences the development of his children.
The team from the Duke Cancer Institute, led by post-doctoral associate Adelheid Soubry, examined data from their newborn epigenetics study. Their goal: to learn whether obesity in fathers may be correlated with changes in gene expression in their offspring.
“Body mass index, and hence obesity, were the most obvious characteristics from fathers we had in the NEST study,” Soubry said.
“Additionally, it has been shown in animal models that fat intake in fathers affects their offspring.”
Epigenetics – the study of how genes are expressed – has become a hot topic in recent years as scientists attempt to understand how environment regulates our genetic code.
One example of this regulation is the process of DNA methylation at “imprinted” genes, or genes in which maternal or paternal copies (alleles) are chemically modified and turned on or off. In the Duke study, there was a clear correlation between obesity in fathers and decreased DNA methylation at an imprinted gene in newborns.
Specifically, the researchers found less DNA methylation at the IGF2 gene in children of obese fathers, compared with those of non-obese fathers. This means the gene in these newborns may have lost its imprinting and could become overly active, increasing the newborns’ risk of various diseases, including cancer.
“Correct gene imprinting is important for normal functioning and development,” Soubry said.
In general, both too much and too little gene expression are linked with disease. The body needs to maintain a constant condition, and environmental factors, including a father’s health, may affect this equilibrium.
Armed with this knowledge, it may be possible for fathers to lower the chances of epigenetic problems in their offspring, or to correct hormonal imbalances that may be causing these problems.
“We think there is a hormonal factor that may explain the differences we see between children from obese and non-obese fathers,” Soubry said, “but at the moment, it is too early to say.”
In the end, and just like for mothers, it will be fathers’ lifestyle changes that will be most important for their children.
“We need to make fathers aware of the importance of their food pattern and lifestyle for the health of their future offspring. In short: Prepare the future dads, just like the future moms.”