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Famine-Fueled Epigenetic Shifts

Individuals born following a famine exhibit life-long epigenetic changes not seen in their unaffected siblings, the New York Times reports.

A Dutch-led team of researchers examined blood samples obtained from individuals whose mothers were pregnant with them during the Dutch Hunger Winter of 1944 to 1945, toward the end of World War II, and from their siblings who were born either before the six-month famine or after, as they report in Science Advances. This cohort of individuals whose mothers were pregnant during the famine has been shown to have higher rates of obesity, dyslipidemia, diabetes, and schizophrenia, the researchers note.

Leiden University Medical Center's Bastiaan Heijmans and his colleagues found that the individuals exposed to famine in utero had particular methylation tags: near PIM3, which is linked to BMI; PFKFB3, which is related to glycolysis, and METTL8, which is associated with adipogenesis. As GenomeWeb reports, these associations appear to explain about 13 percent of the BMI and 80 percent of the serum triglyceride differences observed in famine-exposed individuals.

At the Times, Heijmans suggests that PIM3, for instance, was silenced in the fetuses in response to the starvation faced by their mothers and then never reactivated. "Maybe your metabolism is in a lower gear," he says.