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First evidence that prenatal exposure to famine may lead to persistent epigenetic changes
Date:10/30/2008

October 30, 2008 -- A study initiated by researchers at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and the Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands suggests that prenatal exposure to famine can lead to epigenetic changes that may affect a person's health into midlife. The findings show a trickle-down effect from pregnant women to the DNA of their unborn children and the timeframe over which such early damage can operate. While previous studies have suggested that adult disease risk may be associated with adverse environmental conditions early in development, these data are the first to show that early-life environmental conditions can cause epigenetic changes in humans that persist throughout life. The full study findings are published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

The research indicates that children conceived during the Dutch Hunger Winter in 1944-45, caused by a food embargo on the Netherlands in World War II, experienced persistent detrimental health effects six decades later. The authors found that the children exposed to the famine during the first 10 weeks after conception had less DNA methylation of the imprinted IGF2 gene than their unexposed same-sex siblings. By contrast, children exposed to the famine at the end of pregnancy showed no difference in methylation compared to their unexposed siblings. These findings support the conclusion that very early development is a crucial period in establishing and maintaining epigenetic marks. Epigenetic changes, while not altering the DNA sequence, can alter which genes are expressed. Genes that might otherwise be activated could be silenced by epigenetic changes or vice versa, and this could impact an individual's risk for adverse health outcomes later in life.

"We believe that our study provides the first evidence that certain environmental conditions early in human development can result in persistent changes in epigenetic info
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Contact: Stephanie Berger
sb2247@columbia.edu
212-305-4372
Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health
Source:Eurekalert

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