NURTURE may have more influence over NATURE than many people think, with new research suggesting parenting could help protect babies from dangerous genes.

In theory, a healthy diet, loving parents and appropriate stimulation could “switch off” genes that present a risk of physical and mental illness.

It’s the first 1000 days that matter most, say Australian scientists who have recorded widespread changes in switches controlling gene activity in twins they studied from birth to 18 months old.

In a phenomenon known as epigenetics, these switches are thought to control healthy development, but can be changed by environmental factors such as diet, lifestyle and toxic chemicals.

The scientists unexpectedly found some twins can become more epigenetically similar over time.

“We were very surprised,” said Dr Jeff Craig from the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute in Melbourne.

This could be because they might have been in different sacs in the womb and then experience the same home environment.

The research published in the journal Genome Biology shows gene switches change rapidly after birth.

“The research will help us work out the extent to which early environments can change our genes and how one day we may be able to change them back,” said Dr Craig.

Dr Craig says he and colleague Dr Richard Saffery are “asking fundamental questions about what makes us what we are. Are we products of our genetics or are we a product of our environment.”

They believe twins are the best group of people to help work this out because identical twins have the same DNA.

“Anything that makes them different is interesting because it relates to environment,” says Dr Craig.

“If we can find how we are at risk of heart disease, how we are at risk of schizophrenia, we can start understanding those diseases and even start preventing them.

“We are not a sole product of our genes and we are not a sole product of our environment.

“Take cerebral palsy. If you could identify which kids are at risk, you could give them physiotherapy early on to improve their muscular skills and their brain-muscle interaction.

“In heart disease we know that diet and exercise are important and that interventions work better with young children.”

He says parents know what they should be doing, but it is often difficult in practice.

“If we tell them about a specific risk, that might be a better motivation.”

He says the illnesses caused by specific genes have already been identified. All the others are products of multiple genes or the environment or both.

Because you can change your epigenetics, we think that if something has happened beyond our control, we should be able to change it back to how it should be.

“In future we could take control over things that have happened in the past.”


By Clifford Fram

Source: The Daily Telegraph –