[Paleopsych] BH: Genetic Engineering through Diet

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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
    Betterhumans Staff
    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 [8]Duke University in Durham, North
    Carolina proved that [9]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 [10]Biotechnology and Biological
    Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) are testing the phenomenon using
    human embryonic stem cells.

    DNA tagging

    With embryonic stem cells, the researchers, from the [11]University of
    Nottingham in the UK, observe a process called [12]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 [13]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
    [14]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 [15]vitamin B12, [16]amino acids and
    [17]folic acid.

    [18]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."

    Far-reaching implications

    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.


    8. http://www.duke.edu/
    9. http://www.betterhumans.com/News/news.aspx?articleID=2003-08-05-2
   10. http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk/
   11. http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/
   12. http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Methylation
   13. http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/human-development/staff/Young.htm
   14. http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carcinogen
   15. http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vitamin_B12
   16. http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amino_acids
   17. http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Folic_acid
   18. http://www.dukemednews.duke.edu/experts/detail.php?id=298

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