Mice can ‘warn’ sons, grandsons of dangers via sperm .


Lab mice trained to fear a particular smell can transfer the impulse to their unborn sons and grandsons through a mechanism in their sperm, a study reveals.

The research claims to provide evidence for the concept of animals “inheriting” a memory of their ancestors’ traumas, and responding as if they had lived the events themselves.

It is the latest find in the study of epigenetics, in which environmental factors are said to cause genes to start behaving differently without any change to their underlying DNA encoding.

“Knowing how ancestral experiences influence descendant generations will allow us to understand more about the development of neuropsychiatric disorders that have a transgenerational basis,” says study co-author Brian Dias of the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia.

And it may one day lead to therapies that can soften the memory “inheritance”.

For the study, Dias and co-author Kerry Ressler trained mice, using foot shocks, to fear an odour that resembles cherry blossoms.

Later, they tested the extent to which the animals’ offspring startled when exposed to the same smell. The younger generation had not even been conceived when their fathers underwent the training, and had never smelt the odour before the experiment.

The offspring of trained mice were “able to detect and respond to far less amounts of odour… suggesting they are more sensitive” to it, says Ressler co-author of the study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

They did not react the same way to other odours, and compared to the offspring of non-trained mice, their reaction to the cherry blossom whiff was about 200 percent stronger, he says.

The scientists then looked at a gene (M71) that governs the functioning of an odour receptor in the nose that responds specifically to the cherry blossom smell.

Epigenetic marks

The gene, inherited through the sperm of trained mice, had undergone no change to its DNA encoding, the team found.

But the gene did carry epigenetic marks that could alter its behaviour and cause it to be “expressed more” in descendants, says Dias.

This in turn caused a physical change in the brains of the trained mice, their sons and grandsons, who all had a larger glomerulus – a section in the olfactory (smell) unit of the brain.

“This happens because there are more M71 neurons in the nose sending more axons” into the brain, says Dias.

Similar changes in the brain were seen even in offspring conceived with artificial insemination from the sperm of cherry blossom-fearing fathers.

The sons of trained mouse fathers also had the altered gene expression in their sperm.

“Such information transfer would be an efficient way for parents to ‘inform’ their offspring about the importance of specific environmental features that they are likely to encounter in their future environments,” says Ressler.

Happening in humans?

Commenting on the findings, British geneticist Marcus Pembrey says they could be useful in the study of phobias, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorders.

“It is high time public health researchers took human transgenerational responses seriously,” he said in a statement issued by the Science Media Centre.

Focal point sperm cell entering a human egg depicting conception of child birth.

“I suspect we will not understand the rise in neuropsychiatric disorders or obesity, diabetes and metabolic disruptions generally without taking a multigenerational approach.”

Wolf Reik, epigenetics head at the Babraham Institute in England, says such results were “encouraging” as they suggested that transgenerational inheritance does exist, but cannot yet be extrapolated to humans.

 

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‘Memories’ pass between generations


Generations of a family

Behaviour can be affected by events in previous generations which have been passed on through a form of genetic memory, animal studies suggest.

Experiments showed that a traumatic event could affect the DNA in sperm and alter the brains and behaviour of subsequent generations.

A Nature Neuroscience study shows mice trained to avoid a smell passed their aversion on to their “grandchildren”.

Experts said the results were important for phobia and anxiety research.

The animals were trained to fear a smell similar to cherry blossom.

The team at the Emory University School of Medicine, in the US, then looked at what was happening inside the sperm.

They showed a section of DNA responsible for sensitivity to the cherry blossom scent was made more active in the mice’s sperm.

Both the mice’s offspring, and their offspring, were “extremely sensitive” to cherry blossom and would avoid the scent, despite never having experiencing it in their lives.

Changes in brain structure were also found.

“The experiences of a parent, even before conceiving, markedly influence both structure and function in the nervous system of subsequent generations,” the report concluded.

Family affair

The findings provide evidence of “transgenerational epigenetic inheritance” – that the environment can affect an individual’s genetics, which can in turn be passed on.

One of the researchers Dr Brian Dias told the BBC: “This might be one mechanism that descendants show imprints of their ancestor.

“There is absolutely no doubt that what happens to the sperm and egg will affect subsequent generations.”

Prof Marcus Pembrey, from University College London, said the findings were “highly relevant to phobias, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorders” and provided “compelling evidence” that a form of memory could be passed between generations.

He commented: “It is high time public health researchers took human transgenerational responses seriously.

“I suspect we will not understand the rise in neuropsychiatric disorders or obesity, diabetes and metabolic disruptions generally without taking a multigenerational approach.”

In the smell-aversion study, is it thought that either some of the odour ends up in the bloodstream which affected sperm production or that a signal from the brain was sent to the sperm to alter DNA.