Imagine if you bequeathed your children not just your genetic material, but also the consequences of your own eating habits. A study published on Dec. 23 in the journal Cell demonstrates that your diet can indeed make a difference in the next generation’s genetic code.
“The take away is that we are more than just our genes,” said lead researcher Oliver Rando of the University of Massachusetts Medical School in a statement, “and there are many ways our parents can ‘tell’ us things.” (More on Time.com: Why Holiday Cheese Plates Aren’t All Bad For You)
Rando’s team placed male mice on a low-protein diet from the time they were weaned until they reached sexual maturity. They then studied the offspring those males produced and found some striking changes: the second-generation mouse pups had hundreds of genetic mutations — particularly in the liver — and this had a severe impact on their metabolic functioning. One gene that changed in offspring, for example — known as Ppara — is essential in cholesterol management and the liver’s role in converting lipids.
“It’s consistent with the idea that when parents go hungry, it’s best for offspring to hoard calories,” Rando said. He went on to say that the generation that follows these pups — the grandchildren of the diet-deprived ancestors — will be of interest as well. Previous research has suggested that it is this third tier of a family that is most affected by epigenetic changes — or those alterations in a genome that accumulate throughout an animal’s life. (More on Time.com: Is Eating Fish Good For You — Even If It’s Fried?)
Researchers don’t yet understand how the genetic information is transferred from father to child and even when they do, the work can’t stop with mice. Additional studies will have to be conducted in human populations.