|(Robert Carlin Photography for Umms)|
Q. You work in a field called epigenetics, which is the study of traits that are inherited based on non-DNA information?
A. That’s right. As it turns out, we inherit a lot of information beyond DNA sequence. Within one generation, epigenetic information plays a role in a number of diseases such as cancer, but in the context of our work, epigenetics also provides a way to transfer information between generations — it provides a plausible way for parents to tell their kids stuff.
Q. What were you looking for in a recent study you did with mice?
A. We just tried to ask the question whether we could see differences in children depending on how we treated their parents.
Q. By feeding male mice a low-protein diet to see what happened to the health of their offspring you say you were, in a sense, repeating and updating classic research, right?
A. In the 19th century, August Weismann did an experiment where he cut tails off mice and he mated them and he measured the tail length of their offspring. He didn’t see any change in the tail length in kids. . . . [This proved that] you don’t inherit everything the environment did to [your ancestors]. If you think about it from an evolutionary perspective, you only want to tell your kids information that will be useful to them. Probably you wouldn’t want to tell them to have shorter tails, you’d want to tell your kids to run away from people in lab coats. We revisited the paradigm of poking animals in one generation and looking at the next generation.
Q. What was your bottom-line result?
A. The results are that hundreds of genes can tell what your dad was eating before conception.
Q. Does this kind of research change the way you eat yourself — for the sake of your two children? Should it change the way we all eat?
A. Far be it for me to predict the future. All I would say with any certainty is it probably doesn’t make sense for men to undergo starvation before they have children.
Q. Can this kind of research tell us what kind of shape our parents and grandparents left us in and what we should be worried about in ourselves?
A. This is something that’s going to be a relevant area of study for the future — determining what your parents “programmed’’ you for. It may be the case that because of where your parents came from it makes sense for you to eat a lower-fat diet or higher protein or whatever it ends up being. [But] we are a decade or more away from having that type of understanding of the mapping from epigenetic information to diseases.
Q. So far, most of the epigenetic research in people seems to have been looking at severe conditions like starvation. Is it possible that less dramatic changes can also ripple through the generations?
A. It doesn’t seem inconceivable that dietary changes that are within a normal range that Americans would be making could affect kids. Most of the studies so far have looked at the extremes of dietary conditions simply because if you don’t know if something exists, you look at extreme behavior first.
Q. What most excites you about this research right now?
A. Trying to figure out how dads tell their kids things.
Interview was edited and condensed. Karen Weintraub can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.