Maternal diet and weight can impact their child's health even before birth - but so can a father's, shows a study published in BioMed Central's open access journal BMC Medicine. Hypomethylation of the gene coding for the Insulin-like growth factor 2, (IGF2),in newborns correlates to an increased risk of developing cancer later in life, and, for babies born to obese fathers, there is a decrease in the amount of DNA methylation of IGF2 in foetal cells isolated from cord blood.

As part of the Newborn Epigenetics Study (NEST) at Duke University Hospital, information was collected about parental weight and compared to their newborn's epigenetic data. DNA contains the genetic information which is inherited from their parents by children but epigenetic imprinting, such as DNA methylation, controls how active these genes are.

IGF2 codes for a growth factor that is important mainly during foetal development; aberrant control of this gene, including DNA hypomethylation, has been implicated in cancer. The researchers found that IGF2 was hypomethylated in newborns with obese fathers, but not obese mothers.

Dr Adelheid Soubry who led this study explained, "During spermatogenesis some regions in the DNA may be sensitive to environmental damage; these effects can be transmitted to the next generation. It is possible that (mal)nutrition or hormone levels in obese fathers, leads to incomplete DNA methylation or to unstable genomic imprinting of sperm cells. Further research is necessary to confirm our findings."

Dr Cathrine Hoyo from NEST continued, "In general, epigenetic marks are reprogrammed while sperm and eggs are being formed, and consequently nutrition, lifestyle or environment of the parents at this point in time can have a direct effect on a child's development and subsequent health."