Family living conditions in childhood are associated with significant effects in DNA that persist well into middle age, according to new research by Canadian and British scientists.
The team, based at McGill University in Montreal, University of British Columbia in Vancouver and the UCL Institute of Child Health in London looked for gene methylation associated with social and economic factors in early life. They found clear differences in gene methylation between those brought up in families with very high and very low standards of living. More than twice as many methylation differences were associated with the combined effect of the wealth, housing conditions and occupation of parents (that is, early upbringing) than were associated with the current socio-economic circumstances in adulthood. (1252 differences as opposed to 545).
I find Epigenetics to be a very interesting area. My basic understanding as I grew up was that you inherited your genes. But epigenetics explores how your genes change over time. This has been a very active area of research recently. Your DNA remains the same during your life. But the way those genes are expressed changes.
I don’t know of any research supporting the idea I mention in this example, but, to explain the concept in a simple way: you may carry genes in your DNA for processing food in different ways. If you have very limited diet the way your body reacts could be to express genes that specialize in maximizing the acquisition of nutrition from food. And it could be that your body sets these expressions based on your conditions when young; if later, your diet changes you may have set those genes to be expressed in a certain way. Again this is an example to try and explain the concept, not something where I know of research that supports evidence for this example.
The findings by these universities, were unfortunately published in a closed way. Universities should not support the closing of scientific knowledge. Several universities, that support open science, require open publication of scientific research. It is unfortunate some universities continue to support closed science.
The research could provide major evidence as to why the health disadvantages known to be associated with low socio-economic position can remain for life, despite later improvement in living conditions. The study set out to explore the way early life conditions might become ‘biologically-embedded’ and so continue to influence health, for better or worse, throughout life. The scientists decided to look at DNA methylation, a so-called epigenetic modification that is linked to enduring changes in gene activity and hence potential health risks. (Broadly, methylation of a gene at a significant point in the DNA reduces the activity of the gene.)