Early Epigenetic Origins of Adult Disease


Our risk of developing traditionally adult‐onset diseases such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease is thought to be determined by a combination of environmental and genetic factors. Epigenetics provides a mechanism by which our genes and the environment interact. Evidence arising from both epidemiological and animal studies has recently demonstrated a significant role for early‐life epigenetic mechanisms in the aetiology of adult diseases. Critically, epigenetic modifications have now been demonstrated to persist over multiple generations, highlighting their stability. This emphasises the role of epigenetic mechanisms in the exponential surge in the prevalence of obesity and metabolic syndrome that has occurred in just one generation in humans. Future studies should focus further on the precise mechanisms leading to adverse epigenetic alterations that promote disease. A deeper understanding of these processes may lead to effective early‐life interventions which prevent adult‐onset diseases and improve the health of future generations.

Key Concepts

  • Epigenetics provides a mechanism by which our environment can interact with our genes.
  • Epigenetic modifications in early life are able to influence the metabolism in later life.
  • The early environment influences our long‐term health and risk of disease.
  • Epigenetic modifications may be stable and transmitted through multiple generations.
  • Epigenetic modifications can be modulated by the early environment.

Keywords: epigenetics; foetal environment; animal models; maternal nutrition; paternal diet; transgenerational inheritance; type 2 diabetes; metabolic syndrome; obesity

Figure 1. Epigenetic modifications. Methylation of DNA and modifications to histone proteins change the structure of the chromatin, altering the access of transcription factors. Post‐transcription, miRNAs can either degrade mRNA or block its translation. All modifications determine whether a protein product is synthesised.
Figure 2. Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance. Environmental exposures in the parental or F0 generation can induce epigenetic modifications in the germ cells, which effect the development and phenotype of subsequent generations. Modifications can be transmitted through more than one generation in both maternal and paternal lines. The maternal environment during pregnancy is also able to influence the epigenome and subsequent phenotype of the offspring.


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Pinnock, Adele G, and Ozanne, Susan E(Jul 2016) Early Epigenetic Origins of Adult Disease. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0025841]