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Severe malnutrition in early pregnancy could impact the child’s genes

Posted:  Thursday, May 21, 2015

The first 10 weeks of pregnancy are the most sensitive to any changes experienced by the mother. So what would happen if pregnant mothers faced famine situations during this critical period? Dutch researchers found changes in DNA methylation in the offspring of mothers who faced extreme calorie restriction (900 calories daily or less). These changes resulted in the suppression of genes involved in growth, development and metabolism.

The researchers evaluated the long-term and short-term effects of the 1944-1945 Dutch Winter famine on the genome before and after conception. They used blood samples of 422 individuals who were exposed to famine at any time during gestation. The control group consisted of 463 individuals with no prenatal famine exposure. The study findings were published in the International Journal of Epidemiology.

The study sample comprised:

- Individuals born between February 1945 and March 1946 whose mothers faced famine conditions during or immediately preceding pregnancy

- Individuals conceived between March and May 1945 at the time of extreme famine

- Control group individuals whose mothers did not face famine when pregnant, and

- Sibling controls who were also not exposed to famine in pregnancy

The researchers found that exposure to famine during the 1st to 10th week of gestation and not later in pregnancy resulted in DNA changes. Methylation changes were also observed in individuals who were conceived during the peak famine period, but not exposed to the famine during all of the 10 weeks. Talking about the study findings, the lead author said, "The first ten weeks of gestation is a uniquely sensitive period when the blood methylome -- or whole-genome DNA methylation -- is especially sensitive to the prenatal environment."

This study highlights the developmental importance of early gestation and the vulnerability of this period to environmental changes. In the light of these findings, pregnant women must be advised to plan their pregnancy and monitor their nutrition carefully, especially in the first few weeks.

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