Researchers suggest a man’s life behaviors may impact the health of his children and grandchildren.
Study coauthor Sarah Kimmins, of the Department of Animal Science at McGill University in Canada, and colleagues publish their findings in the journal Science.
In recent years, numerous studies have indicated that a child’s health may be affected by the environment and life behaviors of their father. For example, a study reported by Medical News Today last year suggested babies whose father smokes before conception are at increased risk for asthma.
However, Kimmins and colleagues note that to date, scientists know very little about what drives this association. The majority of research in this field has looked at how certain environmental and lifestyle factors influence specific molecules that bind to DNA in order to control gene expression.
In this latest study, however, the team set out to investigate whether proteins called histones – a component of sperm that is transmitted during fertilization – play a role in heritability.
The researchers explain that histones – though distinct from DNA – combine with DNA during cell formation. The DNA wraps around the histones, which helps to make it more compact and better able to fit into the cell nucleus.
Histone alteration affected development, survival of mice offspring
The researchers created mice in which the biochemical information on the histones was modified during the formation of sperm – a process that can occur with certain environmental exposures. They then assessed the development and survival of two generations of offspring.
The team found that the offspring of the mice were not only prone to birth defects, but also they had abnormal skeletal formation and reduced survival. What is more, these effects could be seen across two generations.
The researchers say they were “blown away” by these findings, which indicate that something other than DNA – the alteration of histones – play a role in the health and development of offspring.
“The study highlights the critical role that fathers play in the health of their children and even grandchildren.
Since chemical modifications on histones are susceptible to environmental exposures, the work opens new avenues of investigation for the possible prevention and treatment of diseases of various kinds, affecting health across generations.”
Commenting on the team’s results, Prof. Marisa Bartolomei, of the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, says this is the first study to offer a “feasible” explanation as to why fathers may pass diseases and detrimental phenotypes to offspring in the absence of genetic mutations.
“This gives researchers confidence to pursue histone retention in the male germ cells as a mechanism of inheritance […] and it also will serve as a reminder to fathers to be diligent protectors of their germline,” she adds.
Last year, MNT reported on a study suggesting fathers who engage in excessive drinking before conception may make their sons more susceptible to the damaging effects of alcohol.
Written by Honor Whiteman