"We were very surprised to see that there was an almost 30 per cent increase in birth defects in the litters sired by fathers whose levels of folates were insufficient," said Dr. Romain Lambrot, of McGill's Dept. of Animal Science, one of the researchers who worked on the study. "We saw some pretty severe skeletal abnormalities that included both cranio-facial and spinal deformities."
The research from the Kimmins' group shows that there are regions of the sperm epigenome that are sensitive to life experience and particularly to diet. And that this information is in turn transferred to a so-called epigenomic map that influences development and may also influence metabolism and disease in the offspring in the long-term. (The epigenome is like a switch, which is affected by environmental cues, and is involved in many diseases including cancer and diabetes. The epigenome influences the way that genes are turned on or off, and hence how heritable information gets passed along).
Although it has been known for some time that there is a massive erasure and re-establishment that takes place in the epigenome as the sperm develops, this study now shows that along with the developmental map, the sperm also carries a memory of the father's environment and possibly even of his diet and lifestyle choices.
"Our research suggests that fathers need to think about what they put in their mouths, what they smoke and what they drink and remember they are caretakers of generations to come," said Kimmins. "If all goes as we hope, our next step will be to work with collaborators at a fertility clinic so that we can start assessing the links in men between diet, being overweight and how this information relates to the health of their children."
|Contact: Katherine Gombay|