The intracellular environment surrounding your DNA can either help repair problems in your DNA structure, or make those problems worse. This happens because of ‘epigenetic’ changes, changes in the expression of the gene because of what is ‘epi’ or around the gene.
It is only common sense that different substances in the environment surrounding the gene itself would make the gene function differently. This is where heredity and environment interface.
Methyl groups are one of the most important substances that can impact genes this way. Methyl groups are primary epigenetic modifiers of DNA. Methyl groups are made of one carbon and three hydrogen molecules. They attach to and regulate the function of the DNA.
These epigenetic changes are inheritable. The two mice above are genetically identical. Their mothers were fed differently, hence their differences. The obese white mouse on the left had a mother who was fed regular mouse rations.
The smaller brown mouse on the right is normal. His mother was fed a diet with added B12, folic acid and methyl donors. B12 and folic acid enhance methyl group formation.
None of this is news to you. What is news is that researchers have uncovered that a human mother’s diet before conception can permanently affect how her child’s genes function. According to a study published in Nature Communications, this is the first evidence of the effect in humans.
The study utilized a unique ‘experiment of nature’ in rural Gambia, where the population’s dependence on grown foods and a markedly seasonal climate impose a large difference in people’s dietary patterns between rainy and dry seasons.
While a child’s genes are inherited directly from their parents, how these genes are expressed is controlled through ‘epigenetic’ modifications to the DNA. One such modification involves tagging gene regions with methyl groups that results in silencing the genes. The addition of methyl groups requires key nutrients including folate, vitamins B2, B6 and B12, choline and methionine.
Senior author Dr. Branwen Hennig, Senior Investigator Scientist at the MRC Gambia Unit and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said:
“Our results represent the first demonstration in humans that a mother’s nutritional well-being at the time of conception can change how her child’s genes will be interpreted, with a life-long impact.”
The researchers found that infants from rainy season conceptions had consistently higher rates of methyl groups present in all six genes they studied, and that these were linked to nutrient levels in the mother’s blood.
Strong associations were found with two compounds in particular, homocysteine and cysteine, and the mothers’ body mass index (BMI) had an additional influence.
Andrew Prentice, Professor of International Nutrition at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said:
“Our ongoing research is yielding strong indications that the methylation machinery can be disrupted by nutrient deficiencies and that this can lead to disease. Our ultimate goal is to define an optimal diet for mothers-to-be that would prevent defects in the methylation process. Pre-conceptional folic acid is already used to prevent defects in embryos. Now our research is pointing towards the need for a cocktail of nutrients, which could come from the diet or from supplements.”
There is an e-book on www.NancyMullanMD.com called “The Methyl Group: What It Can Do for You, Plus Three Mistakes Not to Make with MTHFR.” It goes into these issues more and includes a description of which genes specifically impact methyl group production. This is important information if your body is not functioning properly.