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Sins of the Grandmothers

If your grandmother smoked, will you be more likely to have asthma? The Economist reports that it's looking pretty likely, based on a recent epigenetic study in rats.

The study, published in BMC Medicine, exposed pregnant rats to nicotine and found out that not only did their offspring develop asthma, but so did the progeny of those offspring, who were not exposed to nicotine.

The authors note in the paper that the "groundbreaking" finding that nicotine-induced epigenetic marks can be transferred through the germline to subsequent generations "shifts the current asthma paradigm, opening up many new avenues to explore."

The researchers plan to study whether the same effects are seen in subsequent generations. They also plan to nail down the specific epigenetic changes that are responsible, though the initial results point toward histone 3 acetylation. It also looks like the symptoms can be reversed with rosiglitazone, but those findings are also preliminary.

The Economist stresses that any interpretation of these results as evidence of Lamarckian evolution would be an "exaggeration" because the DNA sequence is not permanently altered. Yet it notes that the idea that acquired characteristics can be inherited at all is "still an important and novel one" and calls the study's findings "worrying."