Along with Father’s Day comes the typical thank-yous, the gratitude that never quite seems to be enough for the love Dad has shown for all the years. Maybe your father encouraged you through difficult times or supported you when you needed it most. These are wonderful things to thank your dad for, but there might be something you’ve been missing all along. Have you ever thought of thanking him for being an epigenetic hero? Your dad’s behavior and experiences may have actually epigenetically impacted you, shaping who you are today and, perhaps, without him knowing – or even you knowing.
We’ve already covered the epigenetic influence you might thank Mom for on Mother’s Day, but it’s becoming more and more evident that fathers also may pass down important life experiences and behaviors to their children epigenetically. Research is now uncovering evidence that suggests fathers are contributing a lot more than just their chromosomes – they’re passing down unique epigenetic marks on their DNA.
Epigenetics can be best understood as the chemical changes made to DNA that affect phenotype without affecting genotype. “Epi-” means “above” or “on top of” and these chemical modifications, such as DNA methylation or histone modifications, occur to the DNA and impact gene expression without actually altering any of the genetic sequence. These important epigenetic tags are connected to a wide variety of both normal and abnormal cellular processes.
Because it’s believed that fathers might be able to transfer these epigenetic marks to their children, Dads could affect their kid’s development and impact their behaviors in life-changing, yet molecularly subtle ways.
Take a look at these 3 reasons why we should thank our fathers for their epigenetic influence on us:
1. Because you’re healthy
It’s possible that fathers who have eaten well or are physically fit during their lifetime may epigenetically pass this health benefit on to their children. In one study, fathers who had a healthy body mass index (BMI) prior to their child’s conception had children with a normal amount of DNA methylation on the gene for insulin-type growth factor 2 (IGF2), whereas fathers who overate and were obese had children with a decrease in this epigenetic mark . This gene is thought to be essential to normal growth and development.
In this study, the researchers assessed obesity of men before conception and the DNA methylation profiles of their children, looking closely at differentially methylated regions (DMRs) of the insulin-like growth factor 2 (IGF2) gene. They found a connection between the obesity of the father and the child’s methylation of this particular gene. So if you’re healthy, it may be due in part to your father’s good eating habits even before you were conceived (thanks, Dad!).
In a rat study, poor eating choices during a rat father’s lifetime were shown to increase their pups’ risk for developing diabetes. The researchers found that the offspring of rat fathers eating a high-fat diet grew up to be glucose intolerant and had impaired insulin secretion . The researchers hypothesized that these changes were due to DNA methylation or histone modifications passed down via the dad’s sperm. The transference of DNA methylation or similar epigenetic marks from parent to child is known as epigenetic inheritance.
In light of these studies, consider thanking your dad this Father’s Day for the potential epigenetic influence he’s had on your health.
2. Because you’re stress-free
We already know from the blog 4 Things You’re Forgetting to Thank Mom For This Mother’s Day that mothers who shower their babies with affection can epigenetically improve their children’s ability to cope with stress later in life. Similarly, we are learning that fathers might also help their offspring remain calm and reduce hypersensitivity, perhaps even staving off depression. In a recent study, researchers injected RNA from male mice sperm into fertilized eggs of normal mice. The RNA belonged to mice that displayed depressive and stressed behaviors due to trauma endured during their younger age.
The researchers found that the offspring experienced the same depressive behaviors and metabolic disruptions that their fathers had, despite the two never coming in contact . Investigating this further, the research team discovered that in the baby mouse’s blood and hippocampus, an area of the brain crucial to the major stress-regulating axis of the body, there was an increase of five micoRNAs (miRNAs).
MicroRNAs are pieces of RNA that inhibit the production of proteins and can epigenetically control gene expression. They are implicated in establishing DNA methylation and may regulate chromatin structure via histone modifiers. MiR-375, one of the miRNAs found to be elevated in the stressed mice pups, has previously been associated with stress and metabolic regulation. The researchers speculated that these consequences may have been passed down in the sperm due to epigenetic marks such as DNA methylation or histone modifications.
Although additional research is needed to pinpoint the exact epigenetic modifications and molecular pathways affected, this study and others place the focus on the father’s epigenome and how positive experiences during life could actually benefit his offspring. It appears that moms and their epigenomes shouldn’t get all the credit when it comes to raising good kids. If you’re stress-free, consider adding this one to the list of epigenetic reasons why you’ll want to thank Dad this Sunday.
3. Because your children are healthy and stress-free
Research has shown that negative life experiences could impact several generations, but this leads us to believe it’s possible that positive life experiences could also affect numerous generations. Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance takes epigenetic inheritance a step further and suggests that these epigenetic marks persist throughout the family, transferred to not just the children, but to the grandchildren and perhaps even further generations down the line.
If your children are in good health, it could be due in part to your father’s physical fitness or healthy lifestyle, passed down as epigenetic marks on sperm DNA. In a recent study, researchers conditioned male rats to fear the scent of acetophenone, which has been compared to smelling like cherries or almonds. Their negative reaction to acetophenone was actually inherited by their offspring, even though their offspring never encountered it before in their lives . Even more surprising, the fearful response to this particular scent persisted into the third generation of mice – the “grandchildren.”
The scientists believed that DNA methylation explained the inherited reactivity to the scent. The gene that senses acetophenone, Olfr151, was found to have fewer methylation marks detected in sperm. These findings suggest that fathers can pass down their life experiences to their children and even to their grandchildren, regardless of whether they come in contact with them. Dad’s positive experiences could benefit you in the long run, and maybe even benefit your children.
Although epigenetic marks can be passed down from generation to generation and beneficial ones are surely something to thank dad for, recent evidence also hints that certain epigenetic marks may be reversible. More research is needed, but for now it’s possible Dad’s experiences and his lifestyle before you were even born has a much greater impact on your gene expression than you might’ve ever thought. So this Father’s Day remember to say thanks to Dad for the epigenetic impact he probably never even knew he had!
*Disclaimer: The points made herein represent a speculative opinion of the author based on related scholarly publications on animal and human studies.
- Dias, B.G., Ressler. K.J. (2013). Parental olfactory experience influences behavior and neural structure in subsequent generations. Nature Neuroscience, 17:89-96. DOI: 10.1038/nn.3594
- Gapp, K., et al. (2014). Implication of sperm RNAs in transgenerational inheritance of the effects of early trauma in mice. Nat Neurosci, 17:667-669. DOI: 10.1038/nn.3695
- Ng, S., Lin, R.C., Laybutt, D.R., Barres, R., Owens, J.A., Morris, M.J. (2010). Chronic high-fat diet in fathers programs B-cell dysfunction in female rat offspring. Nature, 467:963-7. DOI: 10.1038/nature09491
- Soubry, A., Schildkraut, J.M., Murtha, A., Wang, F., Huang, Z., Bernal, A., Kurtzberg, J., Jirtle, R.L., Murphy. S.K., and Hoyo. C. (2013). Paternal obesity is associated with IGF2 hypomethylation in newborns: results from a Newborn Epigenetics Study (NEST) cohort. BMC Medicine, 11:29. DOI: 10.1186/1741-7015-11-29