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New UMD Research Shows Epigenetic Changes Passed Through 300 Generations

By Kimbra Cutlip

A new study by researchers at the University of Maryland provides a potential tool for unraveling the mystery of how experiences can cause inheritable changes to an animal’s biology. By mating nematode worms, they produced permanent epigenetic changes that lasted for more than 300 generations. The research was published today in the journal Nature Communications.

Evidence suggests that what happens in one generation—diet, toxin exposure, trauma, fear—can have lasting effects on future generations. Scientists believe these effects are a response to the environment and turn genes on or off without altering the genome or DNA sequence. But how these changes are passed down through generations has not been understood, in part, because scientists have not had a simple way to study the phenomenon.

“If I’m on some diet today, how does that affect my children and grandchildren and so on? No one knows, because so many different variables are involved,” said Antony Jose, associate professor of cell biology and molecular genetics at UMD and senior author of the study. But we’ve found this very simple method, through mating, to turn off a single gene for multiple generations.”

In the new study, Jose and his team found while breeding nematode worms that some matings led to epigenetic changes in offspring that continued to be passed down through as many generations as the scientists continued to breed them. This discovery will enable scientists to explore how epigenetic changes are passed to future generations and what characteristics make genes susceptible to permanent epigenetic changes.

Jose and his colleagues expect that future studies may one day help scientists identify human genes that are vulnerable to long-lasting epigenetic changes.

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