What tips the balance between genes versus environment in driving growth and health outcomes? Professor Keith Godfrey examines the forces that sway this balance, revealing the importance of the maternal pre-conceptional environment on health outcomes in infants and young children. The cornerstone of Godfrey’s hypothesis is epigenetics. The information in our genomes is not fixed for life: in fact, environmental influences (such as maternal nutrition and stress levels) have a profound impact on DNA methylation and thus the expression of specific genes. In the meadow vole, the duration of sunlight received by the mother prior to conception determines the coat thickness of her offspring.
Godfrey presents additional evidence from animal models of environmental influences on epigenetic processes, finally revealing the same themes that occur in humans. Data from the Princess Anne Hospital and Southampton Women’s Studies show a strong association between the methylation pattern of the RXRA gene and childhood fat mass. Godfrey concludes by uncovering the maternal parameters that influence childhood health, urging us to revise our vision of optimal early development in order to account for the lasting effects of maternal lifestyle, diet and body composition on human growth and development.