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Study Reports Folic Acid Deficiency Harms the Health of Offspring through Generations

Update Date: Sep 26, 2013 12:05 PM EDT

Folic acid deficiency occurs when the body has a low folic acid count, a type of vitamin B, in the blood. A deficiency could be caused by poor diet or underlying medical problems in which the body does not absorb enough folic acid. When left untreated, folic acid deficiency can lead to anemia, which causes symptoms ranging from feeling weak and tired to having difficulties concentrating. Even though folic acid deficiency affects the individual, a new study is reporting that it could also hinder the health of one's great, great grandchildren.

"Although our research focused on genetic mutations which disrupts the break down and metabolism of folic acid, we believe that folic acid deficiency in the diet would have a similar multi-generational impact on health," said lead investigator, Dr. Erica Watson from the Center for Trophoblast Research at the University of Cambridge.

For this study, the research team from the Universities of Cambridge and Calgary examined the effects of a genetic mutation that affects the metabolism of folic acid on mouse models. The researchers genetically altered the gene, Mtrr, which is responsible for a normal folic acid cycle. Once mutated, the metabolism of folic acid leads to similar symptoms associated with a folic acid deficiency due to diet. The researcher then bred the mice to study any generational effects of this genetic mutation.

They discovered that when the grandmother or the maternal grandfather had a Mtrr mutation, the grandchildren were at a greater risk of several development abnormalities, which included spina bifida, heart defects and placental abnormalities. The researchers also found that these risks were experienced by the fourth and fifth generation of mice. The researchers then transferred the embryo from a third generation mouse into a healthy and normal female mouse to see if any of the developmental abnormalities would be passed down. The researchers found that in this situation, the fourth generation mice that were born did not have any developmental abnormalities. This suggests that the consequences of the genetic mutation were not passed down genetically. The researchers believe that the abnormalities could be passed down due to epigenetic changes, which are changes in gene expression that could occur during pregnancy.  

"It surprised us to find that the great, great grandchildren of a parent who has had a folic acid deficiency could have health problems as a result - suggesting that the 'sins of your maternal grandparents' can have an effect on your development and your risk for disease," said Watson. "More importantly, our research shows that disease in general can be inherited through epigenetic means rather than genetic means, which has huge implications for human health. Environmental factors that influence epigenetic patterns - e.g., diet, epigenetic disruptors in the environment such as chemicals, etc. - may also have long term, multigenerational effects."

The study was published in Cell.

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