[Paleopsych] BH: Genetic Engineering through Diet
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Fri Feb 4 14:47:32 UTC 2005
Genetic Engineering through Diet
Nutrients that affect genes in the womb may affect children's health later
in life, and now researchers are working to learn which foods might do what
By Liz Brown
1/14/2005 6:39 PM
Eating for two: Researchers are studying embryonic stem cells to learn
how nutrients may affect gene activity to influence children's health
Everyone knows an expectant mom needs to eat well. But diet could be
even more important to a baby's development than previously thought,
as nutrients that affect genes in the womb may influence children's
health later in life. And now researchers are working to learn which
foods might do what.
In 2003, American researchers at Duke University in Durham, North
Carolina proved that diet could influence coat color and disease
susceptibility in unborn mice. However, toying with diets of human
mothers and their unborn children is out of the question.
So scientists funded by the UK's Biotechnology and Biological
Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) are testing the phenomenon using
human embryonic stem cells.
With embryonic stem cells, the researchers, from the University of
Nottingham in the UK, observe a process called methylation.
Methylation is one way the body controls which genes are activated in
certain tissues by tagging DNA with chemical groups called methyl
groups. As a baby grows and develops, methylation keeps order in gene
What a pregnant woman eats could alter the course of this process.
"Specific nutrients in a mother's diet may alter methylation at
critical stages of development and change the trajectory of how
particular organs in the fetus develop," says Lorraine Young, lead
author of the study. "While this may have no impact on normal
functioning of the baby, in adulthood lifetime environmental pressures
may have more adverse effects and predispose adult disease."
This could explain instances where a group of people is exposed to
carcinogens but only some develop cancer, while others aren't
Studying stem cells
To study this phenomenon, Young and colleagues take human embryonic
stem cells from five-day-old embryos donated by couples undergoing
infertility treatment. The researchers then differentiate the cells
into different tissues affected by common adult diseases and observe
changes in the methylation process when these tissues are treated with
various nutrients such as vitamin B12, amino acids and
Randy Jirtle, one of the researchers who led the study of
methylation in mice at Duke, believes that using human stem cells will
provide greater insight into the process. "The epigenome of humans and
mice are vastly different so it is very difficult to extrapolate
specific findings between species," he says.
Jirtle also points to further applications of this technology in
tissue repair. "Such studies may also allow for the
transdifferentiation of somatic human cells to be used in tissue
repair without having to do therapeutic cloning."
Most importantly though, finding the nutrient mix that's most
beneficial for the stem cells could determine what the best conditions
would be for children conceived using in vitro fertilization. "We need
to do this type of research to optimize the in vitro conditions used
for in vitro fertilization because the techniques presently used
increase the incidence of developmental disorders resulting from
genomic imprinting defects," adds Jirtle.
Indeed, the implications of this research could be far-reaching and
eventually prevent adult diseases in many people. "If we can identify
specific nutrients and critical levels in the diet that may alter
fetal development and predispose adult disease, health policies will
ultimately be developed which advise women of the safest diets for the
healthy future of their unborn children. In the long term, this may
reduce the number of adults who contract major diseases," says Young.
However, she warns that they are still several years away from
gathering enough evidence to lay out specific diet recommendations. In
the meantime, pregnant women concerned about their diet should consult
their doctor or a registered dietician for advice.
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