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Epigenetics: How Genes & Environment Impact our Children

Beth Mark

We know that the genetics of our mothers and fathers affect us, but what about outside factors? To what extent can our health be shaped by the environment that surrounded our parents? Or our grandparents?

by / Views 290 / January 12, 2016

Epigenetics is the study of how genes are expressed in the body – essentially how they are turned “on and off” – when certain external or environmental factors are present. Research is showing that epigenetic “biomarkers” are not necessarily inherited via DNA sequence and do develop in response to new, environmental conditions during one’s lifetime.

A British epidemiologist named David Barker is known to be one of the first to have made connections between a parent’s external environment and its impact on offspring. In the 1980s, he noticed that babies with low birth weights were much more likely to suffer from diabetes and coronary heart disease later in life. One of his conclusions, the “thrifty phenotype” hypothesis claimed that, due to inadequate nutrition during fetal growth, a person will inherit a long-term physiological instinct to aggressively store calories.

These and other studies have built the foundation of belief that epigenetic information exists alongside what we inherit from our DNA.

With the increased attention to this field of study, there’s been a growing interest in the way environmental conditions of fathers impact future generations as well, something that has been a bit less explored or understood in the past. A number of studies have found that diet, stress, and environmental exposure to toxins in males also affect a developing fetus and future offspring.

It’s now more widely accepted that the environments of both the mother and father can influence the traits and health of their children.

Connections made between father and child are still small with room for further evaluation. Continued research will undoubtedly unveil more pieces to this puzzle, yet one thing is for sure: our environments have an impact on not only our health, but the health of our children. How many future generations might also be affected?

How do genes transmit information from one generation to the next? Take a closer look at how the molecular process works.