A recent study has found that excessive drinking by pregnant women causes permanent genetic damage to the unborn child, leading to birth defects and learning difficulties.
Scientists have identified the precise molecular mechanism leading to the breakdown of the body's natural defences that protect DNA against damage from excessive alcohol in the bloodstream.
They believe the results demonstrate that binge drinking causes a build-up of toxins within the body, causing irreversible genetic damage, which may explain the phenomenon known as foetal-alcohol syndrome, when babies of mothers who drink during pregnancy are born with congenital learning problems.
The study was based on genetically modified mice, but the scientists involved said the findings are applicable to humans and represent a sea change in the understanding of how alcohol causes long-term physical damage to the body.
"We have long suspected that alcohol causes DNA damage but there has not until now been any direct evidence to support this. This is the first direct evidence that alcohol can cause DNA mutations," Ketan Patel, who led the research at the Medical Research Council's Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, told The Independent.
"This explains why alcohol is toxic to cells and we really needed that explanation. It almost certainly explains why cancer is linked with excessive alcohol consumption, because you cannot get cancer without altering key genes and with alcohol you are essentially drinking a mutagen [mutation-causing substance]," he said.
The study has been published in the journal Nature.