Fetal programming: Gene transformation gone wild (Part I)

Normally genes change very slowly through mutation. Most mutations are harmful and hence provide no survival advantage to the organism. This is why there is a less than a 2 percent difference between our genes and those of a chimpanzee, even though we became a separate species more than six million years ago. What distinguishes mankind is not the number of genes (corn has twice as many genes as humans), but the speed at which our genes can be turned on and off. This is because of the presence of gene transcription factors that can be activated or inhibited by nutrients. The effect of nutrients on gene expression is known as nutrigenomics.

Because of mankind’s rapid gene switching abilities, gene expression can be influenced significantly by the diet. Due to the speed at which new food ingredients are being introduced into the human diet, these types of nutrigenomic interactions can create radical changes in gene expression in a very short period of time. Normally what a person eats should only affect their gene expression during their lifetime. But is it possible that these changes in genetic expression can be transferred to the next generation?

We can see how genetic engineering (i.e. cross-breeding) can rapidly change the size and shape of dogs, flowers, vegetables and fruits. The genes in each of these species don’t change, but changes in gene expression induced by crossbreeding can persist from one generation to the next, especially if they are constantly reinforced. This is known as epigenetics.

Somehow we don’t think this type of epigenetic change can happen to us, but it does as a result of fetal programming. The prenatal period in the womb is the time that a child’s genes are most susceptible to epigenetic programming. Epigenetic programming can be amplified by the ongoing dietary effects on gene transcription factors (i.e. nutrigenomics) taking place in the mother. The result is the imprinting of epigenetic changes on the genes of the developing fetus that can alter the metabolic future of the child (1).

Examples of how this type of epigenetic programming influences future metabolic effects has been demonstrated under the conditions of famine, which generate increased obesity and cardiovascular disease in the next generation (2). This is also true of children who were exposed to excess calories or elevated levels of glucose while they were developing in the womb (3,4). Likewise hypertension (i.e. pre-eclampsia) during pregnancy increases the risk of stroke as adults if the fetus is exposed to the high blood pressure in the womb (5) as well as the increased risk of adult obesity if the fetus is exposed to gestational diabetes in the mother (6).

Bottom line: The dietary and metabolic environment the fetus is exposed to in the womb can echo through the rest of his or her life. In part II of this blog, I will explore how the Perfect Nutritional Storm, described in my book “Toxic Fat” (7) has been making Americans fatter, sicker and dumber for the last three generations.

References

  1. Kussman M, Krause L, and Siffert W. “Nutrigenomics: where are we with genetic and epigenic markers for disposition and susceptibility?” Nutrition Rev 68: S38-S47 (2010)
  2. Painter RC, Roseboom TJ, and Bleker OP. “Prenatal exposure to the Dutch famine and disease in later life.” Reprod Toxicol 20: 345-352 (2005)
  3. Singhal A. “Early nutrition and long-term cardiovascular health.” Nutrition Rev 64: S44-S49 (2006)
  4. Boney CM, Verma A, Tucker R, and Bovh BR. “Metabolic syndrome in childhood: associated with birth weight, maternal obesity, and gestational diabetes mellitus.” Pediatrics 115: e290-e296 (2005)
  5. Kajantie E, Eriksson JG, Osmond C, Thornburg K, and Barker DJP. “Pre-eclampsia is associated with increased risk of stroke in the adult offspring.” Stroke 40: 1176-1180 (2009)
  6. Lawlor DA, Pichtenstein P, and Langstrom N. “Association of maternal diabetes mellitus in pregnancy with offspring adiposity into early adulthood.” Circulation 123: 258-265 (2011)
  7. Sears B. “Toxic Fat.” Thomas Nelson. Nashville, TN (2008)

Nothing contained in this blog is intended to be instructional for medial diagnosis or treatment. If you have a medical concern or issue, please consult your personal physician immediately.

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This entry was posted in Zone Health and tagged , , , , , by Dr. Barry Sears. Bookmark the permalink.

About Dr. Barry Sears

Dr. Barry Sears is a leading authority on the impact of the diet on hormonal response, genetic expression, and inflammation. A former research scientist at the Boston University School of Medicine and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dr. Sears has dedicated his research efforts over the past 30 years to the study of lipids. He has published more than 30 scientific articles and holds 13 U.S. patents in the areas of intravenous drug delivery systems and hormonal regulation for the treatment of cardiovascular disease. He has also written 13 books, including the New York Times #1 best-seller "The Zone". These books have sold more than 5 million copies in the U.S. and have been translated into 22 different languages.

12 thoughts on “Fetal programming: Gene transformation gone wild (Part I)

  1. You can turn your bad genes off by following the Zone Diet and consuming high dose fishoil. This is accomplished by the reduction of silent inflammation.

  2. Another good book to read about fetal risks from environmental chemicals in our food and everyday product consumption that pose a risk to the developing fetus, infant, and adults is “Our Stolen Future.”

    • This study you quote is maybe biased to the type of omega 3′s,dha,type used by westerners verse those used by greenland natives.Go to http://inchr.com/Doc/January2007/Dewailly-prostate.pdf. Seems that maybe our super clean and save fish oils aren’t working as well as they should.Go to http://www.greenpasture.org and see how the people back before 1850′s were processing fish liver oils before rendering and cleansing killed important factors that protects against cancers and other conditions.They seem to be really expensive til you consider that you can drink gallons of the “pure” fish oil and still get prostate cancer.

  3. Weight loss has been very difficult for me, even when in the Zone. I am healthy and full of energy (very rarely ever ill), but still much over weight. I had accepted this as a sad fact of life, but the epigenetic article has made me think again. I was in utero in London and Wales during World War 2 blitz, and grew up on a very small protein (and sugar) ration. Could this have something to do with the difficulty with weight loss?

  4. Tory,
    Most fish oils on the market can be detrimental to your health because of the ingredients or the amount of the ingredients. You should specify what brand you have been or are taking. If I can’t buy Dr.Sears brand, I will buy only the brand that has the exact nutritional info as Dr. Sears brand and it has to be a quality Pharmaceutical Grade.

    Barbara,
    Difficulty with weight loss is just that – difficulty. But it is extremely possible if you go by Dr. Sears food blocks (calorie restriction) for your own body composition. And most people do not know how to calculate the total grams in carbohydrates and the grams in protein and the grams in fat. I believe this is the main problem people have with weight loss. They are eating just too too many calories and not knowing it.

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