UK professor connects nutrition to heredity


Daulton Venglar

Dr. Randy Jirtle gives a talk on epigenetics and gene imprinting in the Thompson Conference Center on Thursday evening. The lecture was a part of the Jean Andrews Centennial Visiting Professor lecture series.

Alex Wilts

People really are what they eat, according to epigenetics professor Randy Jirtle of the University of Bedfordshire, Bedford, U.K.

At the 2014 Jean Andrews Lecture Series on Thursday, Jirtle discussed how nutrition affects a person’s epigenome, an organism’s record of heritable changes in gene function that do not affect the sequence of the DNA. Jirtle said epigenetics help explain why identical twins may vary in their susceptibility to diseases.

“One reason this can occur is because even though they have the same genome, they most likely do not have the same epigenomes,” Jirtle said.

According to Jirtle, a deficiency in nutrients during a woman’s first trimester of pregnancy can severely increase her child’s risk of developing schizophrenia or other chronic diseases such as diabetes or obesity. Jirtle said disease research shows the children of mothers who were pregnant during the Dutch famine from 1944-1945 were two to three times more likely to develop schizophrenia. 

“We have now shown that exposure to environmental agents during pregnancy can alter adult disease susceptibility by modifying the epigenome,” Jirtle said.

While schizophrenia may be caused by the lack of food during a mother’s pregnancy, it is possible that nutrition excess may cause a child to be more susceptible to developing autism, Jirtle said.

According to a graph Jirtle presented during the lecture, epigenetic research has been doubling every four years since the 1990s. Jirtle said this is because many types of sciences, such as epidemiology, fit underneath the umbrella of epigenetics.

“The field of science is doubling every 10 years, so the field of epigenetics is growing three times faster, basically, than the field of science in general,” Jirtle said. “It enlightened scientists to say that epigenetics is now the hottest thing in bioscience.”

Alejandra De Angulo Soriano, a nutritional sciences graduate student who helped coordinate the event, said she wanted Jirtle to give a lecture for the University because she believes epigenetics is an important field for nutrition.

“He is like the godfather of epigenetics,” De Angulo Soriano said.

Nutritional sciences graduate student Diana Gutierrez Lopez said she thinks Jirtle’s research on neurological diseases is inspiring to graduate students.

“Learning more about the human epigenome will make a great difference in the diagnosis of disease,” Gutierrez Lopez said.