Research on nutrition affecting the health of offspring has mainly focused on mothers. Women are commonly warned against smoking and drinking alcohol during pregnancy. Folate (Vitamin B-9) supplements are commonly prescribed for women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant to reduce the chances of their child being born with certain brain defects and spina bifida. A newly funded National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant of more than $1.5 million will support Utah State University researchers’ study of the less-understood role of father’s nutrition in infant health.
A research team consisting of USU faculty members Mirella Meyer-Ficca, Ralph Meyer, Rakesh Kaundal, in the College of Agriculture and Applied Sciences, Clara Cho at the University of Guelph, and Kevin Welch from the USDA Poisonous Plant Research Laboratory on the USU campus, received the 5-year grant of $311,000 per year from the NIH to study how male mouse diets affect the health of their offspring.
Principle Investigator Meyer-Ficca explains that the big picture of this study is to answer the question, “‘How can anything we are exposed to in our environment change offspring health through the father’s germline?’ Studying the males allows us to reduce the variables to a single nutrient and the sperm. Studying female mice would be more complicated because of all the variables that occur during gestation.”
For humans, the question might be “How can my father’s diet determine if I am predisposed to problems like diabetes?” Meyer-Ficca says.
She cites a similar study using obese male rats and healthy female rats. The offspring tended to develop diabetes and weight problems even when they, and their mothers, were always fed a controlled healthy diet. The research team wants to discover the molecular mechanism that transfers such traits through the DNA in sperm. Though the DNA itself is not changed, the cellular instructions for how cells can use their DNA are altered by environmental factors such as diet. The process is called “epigenetics.”
“For example, your brain, heart and liver cells all have the same DNA but how do they know which part of the body to become?” Meyer-Ficca asks. “They have to receive instructions on how to use that DNA. It is sort of like computers, where you have the hardware and the software. Epigenetics is the software that tells the DNA, our cellular hardware, what to do. The software can be changed by altering the diet.”
What is telling the DNA in the sperm to be different? This grant will test a hypothesis that niacin (Vitamin B3) could be one of the molecules that changes the instructions for how our cells use the DNA.
Accurately controlling niacin was nearly impossible until we developed a transgenic line of mice called ANDY. The acronym stands for Acquired Niacin DependencY. These mice require niacin as a vitamin in food, just as humans do, which now allows us to study niacin in a rodent model that more closely resembles human vitamin metabolism.
Niacin was first under scrutiny in the early 1900s when low levels of the vitamin were directly linked to pellagra. The condition manifests itself as painful skin lesions, diarrhea, hair loss, weakness, and dementia. Left untreated pellagra is fatal. Niacin is plentiful in red meat, poultry, and fish but is less available in vegetables. Outbreaks of pellagra were common in the southern United States and in countries that relied on corn as the major food source. In the early 1940s flour mills were encouraged to fortify their flour with niacin and “enriched” flour soon became standard throughout the country.
According to Meyer-Ficca, fortified flour has made pellagra rare, but niacin metabolism remains a hot topic in human health research. This study could help us discover the role it plays in passing on healthy or unhealthy traits from males to their offspring.
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