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High-Tech for a Healthier Future

Seasonal fluctuations in food availability may affect what Gambian women eat before and during pregnancy.  Scientists have shown that these dietary differences can affect the development of genes in the unborn children.

Seasonal fluctuations in food availability may affect what Gambian women eat before and during pregnancy. Scientists have shown that these dietary differences can affect the development of genes in the unborn children.

This post is part of the Science Tuesday feature series on the USDA blog. Check back each week as we showcase stories and news from USDA’s rich science and research profile.

“High tech” isn’t always about images from outer space or a new computer technology, or even the genetic composition of a key crop.

Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists are using a high-tech science called “epigenetics”—which means “above genetics”—to help achieve something even more wonderful: a healthier future for our children.

Epigenetic mechanisms in our bodies are accepted as likely having a role in human disease, including cardiovascular disorders, type 2 diabetes, obesity and even certain kinds of cancer.

These epigenetic mechanisms don’t change the DNA sequence of our genes, but they do change in the way those genes function.  This includes the influence of a mother-to-be’s nutritional status on the lifelong health of her baby.

In an earlier laboratory study, ARS scientists tracked weight gains among baby rats whose mothers were either lean or overweight before conception and throughout pregnancy.

All the baby rats were of normal weight at birth and at weaning.  But when the weaned offspring were given free access to high-fat rations, the babies from the overweight mothers gained significant more weight than the babies born to the lean mothers.

Now ARS scientists have extended their epigenetics studies to women in three villages in the West African nation of The Gambia.  They focused on an epigenetics mechanism called DNA methylation, which is important for cell development and stabilizing cell function.

In studies of 50 healthy children in the villages, the researchers showed that DNA methylation levels were higher at regions of five genes in children conceived during the peak rainy season months of August and September, when the Gambian mothers would have had less access to food because the previous year’s harvest would be running out.

Two of the five genes in which elevated DNA methylation occurred are associated with disease: Tourette’s syndrome and hypothyroidism.  Since the children were about 9 years old when tested, the researchers think the epigenetic effects will likely be permanent.

This study emphasizes the importance of good nutrition for a future mom, not just during pregnancy, but even in the period before she becomes pregnant, to help ensure better lifelong health for her baby.

On National Ag Day, USDA’s Research, Education, and Economics science agencies are sharing four blogs highlighting the importance of innovation and research to food and agriculture. To see more, click here.

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