SYDNEY, Dec. 7 (Xinhua) -- Australian researchers on Friday said they have identified a genes-related mechanism that sheds new light on how a father's lifestyle choices, including diet, alcohol, drugs, smoking and medications, may affect the development of his children prior to conception.
The study involves epigenetics, which refers to heritable DNA marks that determine whether a gene can be "switched" on and off, changing how cells read genes, without causing changes in the underlying genetic sequence, the Hudson Institute of Medical Research said in a statement about its project.
Epigenetic control of genes is part of what allows a tiny cluster of identical cells in the womb to grow into a fully formed baby, according to the researchers. By regulating different sets of genes that can be switched on and off, some cells become heart cells while others become brain cells.
The institute's researchers uncovered how an epigenetic modifying complex called PRC2 regulates non-genetic information transmitted from a father to his offspring.
"For the first time, we demonstrated that altered function of PRC2 in mouse sperm, before eggs are fertilized, caused epigenetic effects on development and gene expression in the father's offspring," said the study's first author Dr Jessica Stringer.
Epigenetic pathways can be disrupted by exposure to lifestyle factors, like diet, drugs and chemicals, providing a means by which parental health can affect future children, they said. Their study was published in scientific journal BMC Biology.
The latest findings substantially extend understanding of how fathers pass on epigenetic information that may affect the health of their children, said researcher Dr. Patrick Western.
"We have identified that PRC2 regulates inheritance pathways in male mice, and that altering the epigenetic 'road-map' established by PRC2 in sperm can affect offspring development, with potentially life-long consequences for health," he said.
"Now we've shown that PRC2-dependent epigenetic changes in sperm can be 'inherited' by offspring from their fathers, we can start to look at whether specific foods or chemicals might positively or negatively affect PRC2 function and therefore development in children," said Western.
"For example, in future work, we will look at how specific drugs, diets or environmental factors affect the sperm epigenome and provide up-to-date information to men wanting to become fathers. Similarly, further work may explain how environmental factors mediate inter-generational health impacts where genetic mutations are excluded."