Mothers are routinely advised that sufficient folate is crucial to their prenatal care, with significant health problems traced to their offspring. The new study has linked the same detrimental health effects seen in offspring to a lack of paternal folate in the diet.
“Despite the fact that folic acid is now added to a variety of foods, fathers who are eating high-fat, fast food diets or who are obese may not be able to use or metabolize folate in the same way as those with adequate levels of the vitamin,” said Kimmins the lead researcher of the study. “People who live in the Canadian North or in other parts of the world where there is food insecurity may also be particularly at risk for folate deficiency. And we now know that this information will be passed on from the father to the embryo with consequences that may be quite serious.”
The study compared male mice who had a sufficient level of folate in their diet with male mice who did not and determined that paternal folate deficiency was associated with an increase in birth defects of various kinds in the offspring.
“We were very surprised to see that there was an almost 30 per cent increase in birth defects in the litters sired by fathers whose levels of folates were insufficient,” said Dr. Romain Lambrot, of McGill’s Dept. of Animal Science, one of the researchers who worked on the study. “We saw some pretty severe skeletal abnormalities that included both cranio-facial and spinal deformities.”
The researchers attributed the influence of folate in the father’s diet to epigenetics as they revealed that there are regions in the sperm epigenome that are sensitive to life experience and particulary to diet. The epigenome acts as a communication hub and passes on environmental cues, that directly impact on cancer and diabetes. The study suggests that the father’s sperm acts as a memory bank passing on his diet and lifestyle choices.
“Our research suggests that fathers need to think about what they put in their mouths, what they smoke and what they drink and remember they are caretakers of generations to come,” said Kimmins. “If all goes as we hope, our next step will be to work with collaborators at a fertility clinic so that we can start assessing the links in men between diet, being overweight and how this information relates to the health of their children.”
R. Lambrot, C. Xu, S. Saint-Phar, G. Chountalos, T. Cohen, M. Paquet, M. Suderman, M. Hallett, S. Kimmins. Low paternal dietary folate alters the mouse sperm epigenome and is associated with negative pregnancy outcomes. Nature Communications, 2013; 4 DOI: 10.1038/ncomms3889