Debunking myths on genetics and DNA

Friday, December 18, 2015

Scientists reproduce a stress-induced phenotype in mouse pups thanks to epigenetic reprogramming

© Elena E. Giorgi

I'm excited to be blogging about science again, albeit only occasionally. Those of you who have been following the blog from its very beginnings, back in 2011, know that I've always been fascinated with epigenetics, one of my favorite topics to discuss. So much so that I've managed to include it into the plot of my detective thriller Chimeras. The thrills in the book are fictional, but the science is all real.

I was talking with my colleague Karissa Sanbonmatsu last week, who's been working on RNA and epigenetics since the early 2000s, and she was telling me how the field is still riddled with controversy. There's more and more evidence that environmentally triggered traits like stress, fat storage, and the propensity to acquire certain diseases can be passed on from one generation to the next via activated epigenetic marks, yet many scientists still refuse to believe it. How can things that are not encoded in the DNA be transmitted to the new generation? Germ cells carry epigenetic signatures that have been shaped by the environmental exposures from the parents, but how are these signatures communicated across generations?

A little background.
Our cells carry long bits of RNA that sense molecules and their changes in concentrations. Depending on the environmental exposures they find, they recruit epigenetic factors that then activate certain genes and/or deactivate others. This happens by inducing changes in the chromatin, the big yarn of DNA that sits inside the nucleus. When a gene needs to be activated, the big yarn moves until that particular gene is exposed on the surface and then translated into proteins. On the other hand, to silence the gene, the chromosome move around again and "hide" the gene deep inside the chromatin. RNA molecule act as regulators of these mechanisms, "deciding" which genes to activate and which ones to silence.

A recent study published on PNAS sheds new light on the mechanisms that communicate epigenetic marks from the germ line to the offspring, proving that epigenetic signatures acquired by the parents can be passed onto the offspring. Rodgers et al., from the University of Pennsylvania, used a mouse model to establish the following points:

  • First, they exposed male mice to chronic stress prior to breeding, and then observed reprogramming of certain genes in the hypothalamus of the offspring;
  • Second, they looked at the sperm of the stressed mice and compared it to the sperm of non-stressed mice; they found a change in content of micro RNAs (miRNAs), and 9 miRNA molecules in particular were found in much higher concentrations in the stressed mice's sperm [1]. Rodger et al. hypothesized that the 9 miRNAs were responsible for the genetic reprogramming induced by the chronic stress exposure and passed on through the paternal line.

To prove it, they injected the 9 miRNAs into single-cell zygotes that were then implanted into normal female mice, raised with no stress exposure, and then examined to see if they presented the same stress phenotype observed in the stressed male's offspring. Indeed, expression of the target genes in the hypothalamus was reduced in the mice that originated from these zygotes, and the expression patterns observed in these mice recapitulated what they had observed in the offspring of the stressed mice.

This study, published in PNAS last october [2], is a milestone in epigenetics, as it finally shows a molecular mechanism that allows genetic reprogramming in the parent to be transmitted to the offspring.

As a final thought, I want to toss in my two cents on the debated rise of autism spectrum and ADHD disorders currently observed in the Western world. Of course, there's the caveat that the diagnostic methods have changed drastically in the past few decades. Still, the increase seems real and the sad truth is that there's probably more than one cause, and the causes lie not just in what the child has been exposed to, but, once you throw in epigenetics into the pictures, his/her parents and grandparents as well. My parents for example grew up at the peak use of asbestos, DDT, and lead in paint. Yes, they survived and, knock on wood, they are quite healthy in fact. But I do fear that we will carry the consequences of those exposures for a few more generations. And who knows what the current exposure to the massive use of corn syrup and antibiotics will do to future generations. Food for thought.

[1] Rodgers AB, Morgan CP, Bronson SL, Revello S, & Bale TL (2013). Paternal stress exposure alters sperm microRNA content and reprograms offspring HPA stress axis regulation. The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 33 (21), 9003-12 PMID: 23699511

[2] Rodgers, A., Morgan, C., Leu, N., & Bale, T. (2015). Transgenerational epigenetic programming via sperm microRNA recapitulates effects of paternal stress Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1508347112


  1. " There's more and more evidence that environmentally triggered traits like stress, fat storage, and the propensity to acquire certain diseases can be passed on from one generation to the next via activated epigenetic marks, yet many scientists still refuse to believe it."
    There's also evidence that a propensity for NOT acquiring certain diseases and conditions, such as high cholesterol, follow hereditary (genetic) pathways. If this is true for cholesterol, then statins are a waste of time. Certainly fodder for plots.
    Well written blog, Elena. Kudos!

  2. Interesting! That's great how epigenetics was able to reach a milestone like this...

  3. How does one stress out mice?
    I wonder if the rise in those conditions came from parents exposed as kids to things like aspartame, which used to be in all diet drinks, and things like that?

    1. It could be, Alex. In fact it could be all sorts of things and I'm afraid we'll never find out for sure, unless it turns out it's something so big that it surpasses all other effects. But I don't think it is that big if it was able to "hide" in the background until now ...


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