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Poor diet in pregnancy linked to diabetes in offspring

18 March 2011

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Category: Research & medical benefits

lab–rat–scientist.jpgPoor diet during pregnancy could raise the risk of offspring developing diabetes, according to new research in rats.

Rats fed a low protein diet produced offspring that were more likely to develop type-2 diabetes as they grew older. Researchers fed pregnant rats either a normal diet, containing two tenths protein, or a reduced protein diet, containing around one tenth protein. Both sets were given the same number of calories.

Researchers then took pancreatic cells from the rats' offspring at three months and at 15 months old. The cells from offspring of poorly fed mothers had alterations in particular parts of their DNA. As the rats grew older, these changes became more pronounced.

Researchers linked this effect to a chemical called HNF 4-alpha. The chemical is known to play an important role in glucose metabolism and the functioning of pancreatic cells.

Offspring of rats fed a low protein diet had lower levels of HNF 4-alpha than those born to normally fed mothers. This decreases the ability of the pancreas to produce insulin and leads to early development of diabetes. HNF 4-alpha levels normally decrease with age, but the poor maternal diet speeds up these ageing effects in offspring.

The alteration of gene activity by environmental factors, such as diet, is called an epigenetic effect. Epigenetic changes are more subtle that genetic mutations and can take years or even generations to have a noticeable effect. The same DNA region responsible for the development of diabetes in the mice was also present in human pancreatic cells. However, scientists caution that further research is needed to establish if a similar effect occurs from poor diet in humans.

For a general guide to epigenetics click here.