According to researchers at the Leiden University Medical
Center, Harvard University, and Columbia University's Mailman School of Public
Health, individuals conceived in the severe Dutch Famine, also called the
Hunger Winter, were delivered with a normal birth weight but extensive research
on the DNA of these children shows that the regulatory systems of their growth
genes were altered, which may also explain why they appear to be at higher risk
for metabolic disease in later life.
During the winter of 1944 -1945 the Western part of Netherlands
was struck by a severe 6-month famine, during which rations provided were as
low as a quarter of the daily energy requirements. Leiden University principal
investigator Dr. Bas Heijmans said, "The different setting of the growth genes
may have helped the Hunger Winter children to withstand the Famine conditions
as compared with their unexposed siblings, but these changes may likewise be
unfavorable for their metabolism as adults."
The research team compared the DNA of these children, now
aged 60, at 1.2 million CpG methylation sites comparing them with same-sex
siblings not exposed to famine. They noticed that the groups of genes involved
in growth and development showed a different gene activity setting in these
famine struck children as compared with their siblings with a similar genetic
and familial background. The potential for a gene to become active is mainly
determined in the crucial weeks post fertilization.
L.H. Lumey, MD, associate professor of Epidemiology at
Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health and senior author who
collected the analyzed blood samples said, "Looking at the human genome we
see systematic changes in gene regulation during early human development in
response to the environment. The epigenetic revolution has given us the tools
to investigate these changes and look at the impact for later life."
The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.