Researchers have discovered that environmental genetic changes (epigenetics) can be passed down for an incredible 14 generations in an animal – the largest span ever observed in a living organism.
A team led by scientists from the European Molecular Biology Organisation (EMBO) in Spain took genetically engineered nematode roundworms called C. elegans that carry a transgene for a fluorescent protein. Which when activated, this gene made the worms glow bright under the ultraviolet light.
Then, they changed the temperature of their containers. Keeping the nematodes at (68° F), they measured low activity of the transgene – which as a result the worms hardly glowed at all.
Researchers then changed the control in the experiment moving the worms to a warmer climate of 77° F, they suddenly lit up like Christmas trees, which meant the fluorescence gene had become less dormant.
The scientists finally moved the worms back to cooler temperatures to see what would happen to the activity of the fluorescence gene.
Surprisingly, the worms continued to glow, suggesting they retained an “environmental memory” of the warmer climate scientist continued finding that the transgene was highly active.
That memory was shockingly passed on to their offspring for seven generations, none of which had ever experienced the warmer temperatures in their lifetimes. The scientists discovered that the baby worms had somehow inherited this epigenetic gene for the warmer climate through both eggs and sperm.
The researchers further pushed their results – keeping five generations of nematodes at 77° F and then isolating the other half of their offspring to colder temperatures – the worms still continued to have higher transgene activity. The study revealed that this continued for an incredible 14 generations, which roughly would take 50 days for the reproduction of the worms.
We don’t know exactly why this happens, but it might be a form of biological forward-planning,” Adam Klosin from EMBO and Pompeu Fabra University, Spain said.
“Worms are very short-lived, so perhaps they are transmitting memories of past conditions to help their descendants predict what their environment might be like in the future,” co-researcher Tanya Vavouri from the Josep Carreras Leukaemia Research Institute in Spain added.
So how does this epigenetic inheritance research affect human beings?
“Inherited effects in humans are difficult to measure due to the long generation times and difficulty with accurate record keeping,” states one recent review of epigenetic inheritance according to scientists.
Numerous studies allege to show examples of epigenetic genes in humans showing all types of effects.
Biologists have long suspected that some kind of epigenetic inheritance occurs at the cellular level.
Other researchers have found that descendants of Holocaust survivors had lower levels of the hormone cortisol, which helps your body recover from a traumatic experience.
Another study by the North Carolina State University and the University of Tennessee found that a “poorly trained” immune system could be inherited as well as past trauma and even nutritional deficiencies. These results were discovered after the examination of the skulls of the Cherokee Native Americans who were descendants of those who survived the Trail of Tears.
This is backed up by a number of other scientific reports by other universities one such is the CAS study, published in the journal Science by the University of Massachusetts Medical School. That experiment revealed that a single junk food-eating generation can pass on the metabolic disorders it gains from an unhealthy diet to the next.
As crazy as it sounds, even WiFi signals can potentially affect the epigenetics of childhood development according to Cindy Sage and Ernesto Burgio.
Finally, BBC published a report in 2013 where scientist found that “transgenerational epigenetic inheritance” can even affect behavior due to events in previous generations influencing the current generation.