Maternal Famine in First 10 Weeks of Gestation Adversely Affects Embryo’s DNA Methylation Status, Leading to Suppression of Genes for Growth, Development, and Metabolism As Adult

Researchers at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health and at Leiden University in the Netherlands found that children whose mothers were malnourished at famine levels during the first 10 weeks of pregnancy had changes in DNA methylation known to suppress genes involved in growth, development, and metabolism documented at age 59. This is the first study to look at prenatal nutrition and genome-wide DNA patterns in adults exposed to severe under-nutrition at different periods of gestation. The findings were published online on May 5, 2015 in an open-access article in the International Journal of Epidemiology. Tha article is titled “Early Gestation As the Critical Time-Window for Changes in the Prenatal Environment to Affect the Adult Human Blood Methylome.” The study evaluated how famine exposure -- defined as 900 calories daily or less -- during the Dutch Hunger Winter of 1944-1945 (see image) affected genome-wide DNA methylation levels. The researchers also studied the impact of short-term exposure, pre-conception and post-conception. The study used blood samples of 422 individuals exposed to the famine at any time during gestation and 463 controls without prenatal famine exposure. The authors examined individuals born between February 1945 and March 1946 whose mothers were exposed to the famine during or immediately preceding pregnancy, individuals conceived between March and May 1945 at the time of extreme famine, and controls born in the same institutions whose mothers did not experience famine while pregnant, as well as sibling controls who were also not exposed to famine in pregnancy. The findings show associations between famine exposure during weeks 1-10 of gestation and DNA changes, but not later in pregnancy.
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