Researchers at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in New York and the Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands said previous studies have suggested that adult disease risk may be associated with adverse environmental conditions early in development, these data are the first to show that early-life environmental conditions can cause epigenetic changes in humans that persist throughout life.
The study, published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, found that children conceived during the Dutch Hunger Winter in 1944-1945, caused by a food embargo on the Netherlands in World War II, experienced persistent detrimental health effects six decades later.
Children exposed to the famine during the first 10 weeks after conception had less DNA methylation of the imprinted IGF2 gene than their unexposed same-sex siblings. By contrast, children exposed to the famine at the end of pregnancy showed no difference in methylation compared to their unexposed siblings.
These findings support the conclusion that very early development is a crucial period in establishing and maintaining epigenetic marks, the researchers said.