Fertile Ideas

A father's diet may affect the health of his offspring

June 1, 2015

Researchers suspect some developmental disorders may be linked to epigenetic information contained in a father's sperm. Epigenetic markings are chemical groups that attach to DNA and associated proteins, and can switch genes on or off at key moments in human development. This gene regulation plays an important role in how sperm cells develop, and in how these same cells package the DNA for safe delivery to the egg for fertilization. Alterations to the epigenetic information may have health consequences for the resulting children. "I'm trying to discover how external environmental factors such as diet and toxicants are imprinted on the epigenetic information in sperm," said Dr. Sarah Kimmins of McGill University. "In this way, we can hopefully find ways to pass on a healthy sperm epigenome to reduce disease."


Pregnant women have long been encouraged to eat green leafy vegetables full of folate, or vitamin B9, to ward off birth defects. Supported by an eight-year CIHR grant and Genome Québec, Dr. Kimmins has shown that a diet deficient in folate also negatively influenced the sperm epigenome of male mice. "It was the first study to show that a father's diet plays a role in preventing birth defects and ensuring the future health of offspring, perhaps as great a role as the mother's," she says. The research team is now investigating whether harmful epigenetic changes in sperm can be reversed. Ultimately, they will explore whether the findings on mice also hold true for men. It takes three months for males to produce mature sperm, she noted, which may present a brief window for introducing lifestyle changes. "That's the big question," says Dr. Kimmins. "If a man starts eating well, could that fix the effects of a previously poor lifestyle and associated epigenetic errors imprinted in his sperm?"


Lambrot, R., et al. "Low paternal dietary folate alters the mouse sperm epigenome and is associated with negative pregnancy outcomes," Nature Communications, 4 (2013):2889.

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