DNA Methylation and Diet: You Are Also What Your Father Ate

Freud famously blamed mothers for nearly everything, and when early epigenetic studies indicated that  you are what your mom (and grandma and great-grandma) ate, it seemed to back him up. But when it comes to complex traits and environment, a new report from scientists at McGill University (Montreal) found that a father’s diet shapes a child too. Sorry Dads, it seems your dietary shortcomings can be a problem for offspring as well.

The cunning crew from McGill gave male mice a free pass to all you can eat buffets that contained either a folate rich diet or folate poor diet, then assessed the epigenetic changes. Here’s what they found out:

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  • Dads who didn’t get enough folate (to create and maintain their epigenetic marks) were more likely to have offspring with birth defects, including craniofacial and musculoskeletal abnormalities.
  • Genome-wide DNA methylation analysis identified the dysregulation of genes involved in development, chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, autism, and schizophrenia.
  • 4, 300 genes are differentially expressed in offspring placenta but surprisingly only two correspond to the sperm, indicating that much more interaction is going on between the paternal, maternal, and offspring epigenomes.
  • Epigenetic transmission across generations involves sperm histone H3 methylation and/or DNA methylation.

Lead author Romain Lambrot noted that the group was “very surprised to see that there was an almost 30% increase in birth defects in the litters sired by  fathers whose levels of folates were insufficient.”  Senior author Sarah Kimmins added that “Despite the fact that folic acid is now added to a variety of foods, fathers who are eating high-fat, fast food diets or who are obese may not be able to use or  metabolize folate in the same way as those with adequate levels of the vitamin and we now know that this information will be passed on from the father to the embryo with consequences that may be quite serious. Our research suggests that fathers need to think about what they put in their mouths…and remember they are caretakers of generations to come.”

Learn more about how Dad’s favorite foods effect you in Nature Communications, December 2013