Early development and long-term health
What if we told you that you are who you are not only because of the genes you inherited from your parents, but also because of the environment in which your parents, and even grandparents, lived in? Well, it turns out that external and environmental factors may have a big influence in the way our genes are regulated. This exciting field of genetics is known as epigenetics, which is the study of heritable changes in gene expression (i.e. if a gene is switched “on” or “off” to perform its function) without changes being made in the DNA sequence itself (1). In other words, epigenetics is the interpretation of our genetic code and just as the same piece of music will change slightly when interpreted by different orchestras, so does our genetic ‘score’ when interpreted by the epigenetic orchestra.
It has been found that external influences such as diet, metabolism, stress and exposure to things like cigarette smoke, heavy metals or pesticides may affect the way our DNA is expressed, especially during early development (2, 3). Fine-tuning of our genes by our developmental environment has adaptive value since it allows us to predict and prepare for the environment that we are likely to experience later (2, 3). However, this fine-tuning has also been shown to affect our susceptibility to chronic disease in later life, with the period around conception being a crucial time where parental lifestyle can influence the health of the next generation (3). It is during these early developmental stages, from the maturation of eggs and sperm through to embryonic development, that long-term cardiovascular, metabolic, immune and neurological health can be adversely affected (3).
The study of epigenetics continues to be a rapidly advancing field since it is clear that epigenetic processes are an important way in which the environment alters long-term disease risk. Knowing more about how these processes work has the potential to allow for early intervention, which aims to improve early development and therefore later health (2). Flinders Fertility is proud to be leading the way in the field of epigenetics by recently collaborating with Flinders University, so to find out more about this important research which focusses on how genes make us who we are, please click here:
- Suter, C., Whitelaw, E., Coupland, K., Clark, S. 2015. It’s not ALL in the genes—the role of epigenetics. Downloaded 01/04/2019 from the Australian Academy of Science webpage: https://www.science.org.au/curious/epigenetics
- Godfrey, K., Costello, P., Lillycrop K. J Dev Orig Health Dis. 2015. The developmental environment, epigenetic biomarkers and long-term health. J Dev Orig Health Dis Oct;6(5):399-406.
- Fleming, T., Watkins, A., Velazquez, M., Mathers, J., Prentice, A., Stephenson, J., Barker, M., Saffery, R., Yajnik, C., Eckert, J., Hanson, M., Forrester, T., Gluckman, P., Godfrey, K. 2018. Origins of lifetime health around the time of conception: causes and consequences. Lancet. May 5;391(10132):1842-1852.