Doctors long have stressed the importance of good nutrition for expectant mothers.
Now biologists at the University of Cincinnati say the father’s diet could play a similar role in the health of a baby.
UC biology professors Michal Polak and Joshua Benoit manipulated the nutrition of male fruit flies and observed a strong correlation between poor diet and poor survivorship among their offspring. The study was published this week in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
“We were really surprised,” Polak said. “In many species, the moms do a lot of the care. So we expect there to be an effect from maternal diet on offspring because of that strong link. But it was a real surprise to find a link between paternal diet and offspring.”
UC collaborated on the study with researchers from the University of Western Australia and the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre.
Everyone knows a father is responsible for half of his offspring’s genes. But the UC study comes at a time when researchers are learning more about other influences fathers have on their offspring’s health that are not necessarily coded within genes, a concept called epigenetics. These influences include direct environmental effects such as exposure to toxins that can be passed from the father to his offspring through his seminal plasma.
Epigenetics is the way by which cells read genes, making some dormant and others active. Environmental cues can turn certain genes on or off. And these epigenetic modifications, too, can be inherited.
For example, an Australian study in 2016 found that male mice that lived on the equivalent of a fast-food diet were more likely to have sons that were diabetic even though daughters remained unaffected. If these traits were coded in the father’s DNA, both sons and daughters would see similar health effects.
“Epigenetic changes are seen in population genetics as less durable than actual mutations to the genetic code or DNA molecule,” Polak said. “If it’s a dominant, deleterious mutation, it could be quickly eliminated out of a gene pool by selection. But if it’s positively selected, then it could sweep the gene pool and increase in frequency until it becomes fixed.”
Research on fruit flies has earned six Nobel Prizes, including this year’s winner in physiology or medicine. The latest Nobel Prize study examined how genes control body clocks or circadian rhythms, which can help explain why some people have chronic trouble sleeping.