There's an old phrase that an expectant mother is eating
for two. A new study indicates it's more apt than was
known. A bad diet can actually alter a baby's genes.
If a mother rat does not eat well, her offspring exhibit
changes that affect what they'll become. Because the
genes and cellular mechanisms involved in the study are very
similar to those in humans, researchers think the study is
relevant to us.
Specifically, rat fetuses receiving poor
nutrition in the womb become genetically primed to be
born into an environment lacking proper nutrition, the researchers
figure; they were likely to grow to smaller sizes than their
normal counterparts. The poorly nourished rats were also at
higher risk for a host of health problems throughout their
lives, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity
and neurodevelopmental delays.
"Our study emphasizes that maternal-fetal health influences
multiple healthcare issues across generations," said Robert
Lane, professor of pediatric neonatology at the University
of Utah. "To reduce adult diseases such as diabetes, obesity,
and cardiovascular disease, we need to understand how the
maternal–fetal environment influences the health of
The results, announced this week, are detailed online by
the FASEB Journal.
The researchers split rat fetuses into two groups. The first
group was normal. The second group had the delivery of nutrients
from their mothers' placentas restricted. The rats were
examined right after birth and again at 21 days, considered
preadolescence. The lack of nutrients in the second group
caused a gene responsible for a protein that promotes normal
development and growth in rats and humans to significantly
reduce the amount of the protein produced before and after
It's an example of nurture
affecting nature, the researchers say.
"The jury's in and, yes, expectant moms really are eating
for two," said Dr. Gerald Weissmann, editor-in-chief of the
journal. "This study shows ... that prenatal care is far more
important than anyone could have imagined a decade ago."