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Q&A with Robert Waterland: Feast, Famine and DNA

  • Frances Alonzo

There is new research that suggests that a mother's nutritional health could affect her child's health in a way that can have lifelong implications.

Dr. Robert Waterland is an Associate Professor of Molecular and Human Genetics at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston Texas. He tells VOA's Frances Alonzo that data from a study of mothers in Gambia shows there are real differences in a child's genetic make-up and the child's resilience in certain diseases later in life.

He says that his group studied mothers who conceived their babies during the rainy season, when food was plentiful, to those babies conceived in the dry season, when the diet was different. He says the results show exciting promise in the eventual creation of a diet for mothers that would help their children before conception and during pregnancy that would give them a lifelong chance to live healthier, disease resistant lives.

WATERLAND: What we studied was the effects of maternal nutrition in the Gambia in West Africa and how a mother’s diet before and during early pregnancy affects her nutritional status and actually affects the process we call “epigenetics” in her developing baby. What our data shows that is new and exciting is that mothers nutrition around the time of conception actually causes permanent marks on her child’s DNA and this appears to occur in essentially all the cells of the body.

ALONZO: Ok. Let me make sure I got it. We have the mothers on one hand who ate better because the weather was better. There was more food available. You compared that to mothers who conceived during a time where food was not quite that plentiful. That apparently had some kind of effect on the genetic makeup of the child with regards to how the infant responded to certain genetic factors later in life. Am I understanding?

WATERLAND: That’s correct. What we now know is that these data related to season of conception are causing us to reconsider that whole relationship and to think, well, also mortality may be related to season of conception in addition to being related to season of birth. So, it’s causing us to reconsider exactly when these early environmental effects are having their impact.

ALONZO: In a certain respect, it does have a very futuristic, Star Wars-y, outer space kind of a sense where you can kind of pick and choose how you want your child to come out.

WATERLAND: I don’t know if we are going to quite get to that point. That’s a very interesting way to put it. What our studies are showing, these are data that are not yet published, but we’re finding that mom’s nutrition rate right around the time of conception, her nutritional status, can affect the chances of dysregulation of epigenetics. What it suggests is that there will be a specific nutritional profile that will be optimal to minimize this epigenetic dysregulation. You cannot take the influence of genetics out of all this. Our studies are not saying that genetic mechanisms are not important determinacies of health and disease.
This level, this epigenetic regulation I think it’s very optimistic to think that if we learn to and if we understand these processes better and can learn how to manipulate them by nutrition for example or even by pharmacological interventions, then this has great promise for improving human health. Because unlike the genome, unlike your genes, which are difficult to change, it may be possible to steer them in the right direction during development and also even to correct them if we can identify epigenetic dysregulation that might contribute to disease.

But, what I want to emphasize is that we believe our data have implications, have worldwide relevance really. And another way we can underscore that is that even these particular regions of the genome that we’ve identified, we first identified these in Caucasians in the U.S. and then they were validated in Vietnamese individuals and only then did we study these processes in these West Africans. So this really indicates that all over the world that similar types of effects of maternal nutrition on the child’s epigenetic regulation are likely to be happening.