Research has indicated that a woman’s diet around the time when she becomes pregnant can turn genes on or off.
The UK/US team of researchers have stated that the need for a well-balanced diet prior to conception and during pregnancy is extremely important.
Researchers followed women based in rural Gambia where the seasonal climate changes affect diets greatly between the dry and rainy periods.
Scientists monitored 84 pregnant women who were said to have conceived at the height of the rainy season and a similar number who had conceived at the dry season peak.
Blood samples were taken from the women to measure their nutrient levels. Their offspring’s DNA was analysed two to eight months after their births.
The lead scientist on the project, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine’s Dr Branwen Hennig, said that this was the first indication that the nutrition level of the mother at the time of conception is able to change the interpretation of the child’s genes for the rest of his or her life.
She stated that the results of the research have indicated that pre-conception and early pregnancy maternal nutrition was very important and could have implications related to the health of the next generation. This indicated that it is essential for females to have a well-balanced before they become pregnant and throughout the pregnancy.
Experiments that have been done in mice indicate that diet during pregnancy has a life-long effect on the genes of the baby mice. For example, the mouse’s coat colour is affected by the mother’s diet.
This phenomenon is known as ‘epigenetic effects’ where modifications to the DNA are able to turn the genes on or off. One of these modifications is the attachment of methyl groups to DNA.
The researchers found that infants conceived during the rainy seasons had much higher rates of methylation in all the genes that were studied. They found links to various nutrient levels in the blood of the mother. However, researchers do not know what the genes do and the effect this process may have.
The co-author of the research findings, Andrew Prentice, a professor of international nutrition, based at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said that their main goal is to define the most optimal diet for potential mothers that would prevent defects during the methylation process.
Image Credit: Thomas van Ardenne