Unravelling the links between environment and the epigenome
While it is commonly believed that inheritance is entirely dependent on the DNA code, recent research has found this belief isn't entirely true. The research indicates that a layer of biochemical information associated with the DNA and known as the epigenome is also heritable.
These findings come from the field of epigenetics, which shows how people’s environment and the choices they make can influence their genetic code and that of their descendants.
The epigenome is passed from generation to generation, in a process called epigenetic inheritance. Remarkably, the epigenome has a memory and contains information about a parent's lifetime experiences, such as exposure to poor diet or toxicants. Epigenetic inheritance may explain complex diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, behavioural disorders and cancer.
Dr. Sarah Kimmins, Canada Research Chair in Epigenetics, Reproduction and Environment, is studying how the epigenome in the gametes (sperm) and oocyte (immature female reproductive cell prior to fertilization) functions in offspring development and disease. Her research aims to understand how environmental exposures to a parent, such as diets and toxicants, can alter the epigenome in gametes and to determine the consequences on offspring.
The information Kimmins uncovers will help improve understanding of how parents pass diseases to offspring and pave the way for new strategies to improve the health of children. The information generated by her research will also eventually result in more in-depth pre-conception advising for men and women.