Imprint of famine seen in genes of Second World War babies 60 years on

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Malnourishment in the womb causes genetic changes that can still be seen when people reach middle and old age, according to new research that shows how strongly environmental influences can interact with the human genome to shape health.

A study of children born during the Dutch “Hunger Winter”, a famine that struck at the end of the Second World War, has found that some still bear its lasting genetic legacy more than six decades on.

The results offer some of the best evidence yet for the importance of epigenetics, a process by which environmental factors can change the way genes are switched on and off in the body.

Epigenetics suggests that the genome can “remember” certain influences to which it is exposed, particularly early in life, which cause modifications to DNA that in turn alter the way it operates. On occasion, these changes may even be passed on from one generation to the next.

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