An epigenetic study conducted by NRI scientist Mihai Niculescu, M.D., Ph.D., shows that in mice, maternal nutrition during pregnancy and lactation can have a significant impact upon the offspring’s ability to use its own nutrients during early life. Specifically, this study indicates that maternal nutrition (specifically, a fatty acid named alpha-linolenic acid or ALA that comes from flaxseed oil) can chemically alter not only mothers’ own DNA, but also the DNA of their offspring, a process call DNA methylation. By consequence, these chemical DNA alterations in both moms and their offspring were associated with drastic changes in the offspring’s metabolism of many essential polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs; ALA is one of the PUFAs).

According to Dr. Niculescu, “There are broad implications that we can derive from this research. We see that vernal DNA structure is important, because it is inherited by the next generation.” In addition to inheriting the DNA sequence of the parents, this study shows that the offspring may also be inheriting the chemical tags added to DNA that allow genes to be switched on or off. This process is called epigenetic regulation. This means that what the mothers eat before or during pregnancy has an impact on the next generation, and these effects persist well after the offspring becomes independent from its mother.

Niculescu continues, “I think that we, as parents have to understand better that our responsibilities to our children are not only of a social, economic, or educational nurture, but that our own biological statues can contribute to the fate of our children, and this effect can be long-lasting. My hope is that, along with many other scientists, we will reveal this tight biological relationship between us as parents and our children, and how we can improve the lives of our children using our own biological machinery.”