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Adult Health Starts Before Birth

“Early determinants of adult health: nourishment and epigenetic markers” (1) was the topic of a 6 October 2011 seminar held by the Fonds Français Alimentation & Santé in Paris. The notion and mechanisms of Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (DOHaD) were explored, with talks given by Claudine Junien and Pascale Chavatte-Palmer from the Reproduction and Developmental Biology (RDB) Unit at the INRA Jouy-en-Josas centre. The two scientists shed light on this promising field of research that has emerged over the past twenty years.

Un couple femme et homme de type asiatique dans une cuisine. La femme boit un verre de lait et l'homme  fait le repas (tourne une cuillère en bois dans un faitout) devant des légumes.
By Nicole Ladet, translated by Teri Jones-Villeneuve
Updated on 02/21/2013
Published on 08/24/2012

Health and predisposition to certain diseases are forged during the early stages of development

Children’s health, and especially their health later on in adulthood, is influenced by what the food and lifestyle choices of their parents, even before they are born. For instance, while it is a well-established fact that obesity results from a sedentary lifestyle and excessive food intake, genetic factors and the environment play added roles. What a mother eats, her metabolism, emotional state or socioeconomic condition can have non-genetic related effects on a child during pregnancy and breast feeding. Even before conception, a mother or father’s nourishment (whether over- or undernourishment), body composition and metabolic disturbances can influence an unborn child’s development. These effects, unknown until now, are significant and offer an understanding of what genetics alone cannot explain. Over the past twenty years, epidemiologic data on humans and experimental animal studies have confirmed the Developmental Origin of Health and Diseases (DOHaD), also known as the Barker Hypothesis.

Genes don’t have the last say: environment plays a long-term role

Scientific data have proved the existence of markers, called epigenetic markers (from the Greek epi- over, above, outer), which bind to our genes throughout development, especially from the moment of conception to birth (a particularly “malleable” period), and throughout our lifetimes. These markers regulate gene expression without altering the genes themselves.
But at any time, these markers can be disturbed by our environment. Epigenetic markers reflect the environment’s effect on our genes. It is one of the recognised mechanisms of DOHaD. Via this mechanism, our lifestyles, food and emotional relationships can leave an “epigenetic trace” on our cells that can be passed from one generation to the next.

Epigenetic markers can be modified at key development stages

When they occur at particular key development stages, modifications to epigenetic markers can provoke disturbances in the formation of certain organs, which can lead to a predisposition to chronic disease in adulthood (diabetes, obesity, etc.). The periods before conception, during pregnancy, newborn period, breast feeding, early childhood and adolescence are especially important development stages during which environmental factors can have long-lasting effects on many organs and functions, including taste. Each of these developmental windows is characterised by a distinct sensitivity to certain environmental factors. Contrary to gene-altering mutations, the long-term effects of epigenetic modifications are not inevitable. It has been shown that an adapted environment – modified as early as possible, when the genome is still at its optimal stage – can counterbalance the harmful effects.

Awareness and taking research in the right direction

Epigenetic markers are especially interesting because they can be changed. Being able to act on epigenetic markers to ensure a child’s future health provides an incredible number of possibilities. Current knowledge is still incomplete and research should be extended in these new directions. However, as evidenced by the seminar’s closing Science/Society discussion, held by Claudine Junien and a sociologist, the potential medical and societal implications from a public health standpoint are enormous. Both the medical industry and the public need to be better informed. Greater awareness of these data have already led to proposals for common sense recommendations regarding healthy lifestyles for (future) parents.
Animals, often used as models, also exhibit these markers. In animal husbandry, research has identified a multitude of applications to understand the role of the environment on animal health, their production and the quality of their products. Moreover, they could make it possible to optimise existing systems by using the environment to our advantage by producing stronger animals that can adapt better to change (climatic, economic, etc.).

See the videos of the seminar (in French): Claudine Junien, M.D. and professor of genetics (PU-PH) at the Université Versailles – Saint-Quentin, “Nutritional epigenomics for developmental programming of metabolic syndrome” group leader in the RDB unit at INRA and head of scientific planning  for the 6 October seminar. Pascale Chavatte-Palmer, Research Director at INRA, “Epigenetics and early determinants of future adult health” group leader in the RDB unit.

(1) "Les déterminants précoces de la santé de l’adulte : alimentation et épigénétique"

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Associated Division(s):
Animal Physiology and Livestock Systems
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