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Mother’s Diet During Conception Can Change Baby’s DNA

Update Date: Apr 30, 2014 02:48 PM EDT

New research has suggested that a pregnant woman's diet can greatly affect the health of the unborn child. In a new study, researchers reported that a woman's diet at the time of conception could change the baby's DNA.

In this study, the researchers examined the diets of women living in rural parts of the Western African country of The Gambia. Due to the drastic seasonal changes, women's diets tend to change a lot throughout the course of one year. For example, during the rainy season, people tend to eat more leafy green vegetables, which have a lot of folate. Folate is an essential nutrient to intake during pregnancy. Some of the staples that remain the same throughout the year are rice, millet, peanuts and cassava.

"The rainy season is often referred to as 'the hungry season,' and the dry season 'the harvest season,'" explained study author Robert Waterland, a nutritional epigeneticist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. "During the rainy season, villagers have a lot more farming labor to do, and they gradually run out of food collected from the previous harvest."

The researchers tested the concentration of nutrients from 84 women who got pregnant during the rainy season and 83 women who conceived during the dry season. The team then analyzed six specific genes in the DNA of the women's infants when they were two to eight-months-old.

Infants who were conceived at the peak of the rainy season had higher levels of methylation in all of the genes in comparison to the infants that were conceived during the dry season. Methylation is a process that occurs to the DNA that can stop gene expression. Since methylation occurs depending on the nutrients in the body, the researchers believe that a mother's diet during conception can greatly affect infant's genes.

"Our results represent the first demonstration in humans that a mother's nutritional well-being at the time of conception can change how her child's genes will be interpreted, with a lifelong impact," senior study author Branwen Hennig, of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said in a statement, reported by FOX News.

The researchers' goal is to find the optimal diet for women who want to get pregnant or are already pregnant. The study, "Geographic population structure analysis of worldwide human populations infers their biogeographical origins," was published in Nature Communications.

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