Mental Floss

How To: Change Your Child's DNA

Maggie Koerth-Baker
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When Willie Nelson admonished mamas everywhere to not let their babies grow up to be cowboys, he had no idea how accurate his assessment of a mother's power really was. Turns out, moms have a lot of control over what their babies become, both before and after birth.

YOU WILL NEED
To be a mom (sorry, guys)

Using Your Dinner
For instance, research done at Duke University Medical Center in 2003 revealed that what a mother eats before and during pregnancy can actually switch certain genes on and off in her child. The study took a group of obese, yellow mice and fed them diets that were rich in the nutrients vitamin B12, folic acid, betaine and choline. Despite still carrying their mother's genes for yellow fur and obesity, the baby mice born from this test were brown and remained svelte throughout their lives. This works because the gene that controls both coat color and appetite is affected by a chemical molecule called methyl groups, of which vitamin B12, folic acid, betaine, and choline are chock full. Methyl groups can switch genes on or off or, in some cases, just increase or decrease their impact.

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Using Your Love
Just because you've exited the womb doesn't mean your mother stops having power over your DNA expression. Research done by neurobiologists at Columbia University and Canada's McGill University has shown that maternal behavior after birth can also lead to a child's genes being turned on and off—in this case, genes that will eventually determine how that child parents their own offspring. According to a May 2006 Discover magazine article, neurobiologists studied two groups of rats, those that spent a lot of time grooming and licking their babies and those that didn't. It turned out that, if a female baby rat didn't get licked enough then her body turned off a series of genes that should have produced certain "mothering" and "love" hormones, like estrogen and oxytocin. Deprived of those, the female rat grew up to exhibit the exact same insufficiently nurturing behavior her mother had shown her—thus continuing on the cycle for another generation. On the other hand, when a baby girl rat got an extraordinary amount of lick-based attention from her mommy, she went on to actually have higher-than-average levels of estrogen and oxytocin. Again, the expression of genes and the production of hormones caused her to display maternal behaviors that were similar to her own mother's.

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