Research has shown that various factors that are passed on by parents or are present in the uterine environment can affect offspring's metabolism and body type.

Investigators led by Dr J Andrew Pospisilik, of the Max Planck Institute of Immunobiology and Epigenetics in Germany, and team member Dr Anita Ost, now at Linkoping University in Sweden, sought to understand whether normal fluctuations in a parent's diet might have such an impact on the next generation.

Through mating experiments in Drosophila melanogaster, or fruit flies, the scientists found that dietary interventions in males could change the body composition of offspring, with increased sugar leading to obesity in the next generation.     

High dietary sugar increased gene expression through epigenetic changes, which affect gene activity without changing the DNA's underlying sequence.

"To use computer terms, if our genes are the hardware, our epigenetics is the software that decides how the hardware is used," said Ost.

"It turns out that the father's diet reprogrammes the epigenetic 'software' so that genes needed for fat production are turned on in their sons," said Ost.

Because epigenetic programmes are somewhat plastic, the investigators suspect that it might be possible to reprogramme obese epigenetic programmes to lean epigenetic programmes.

"At the moment, we and other researchers are manipulating the epigenetics in early life, but we don't know if it is possible to rewrite an adult programme," said Ost.

The research was published in the Cell Press journal Cell.

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