Parents may be passing more to their offspring than their DNA. A new study shows some worms pass along non-genetic changes that extend the lives of their babies up to 30 percent. Rather than changes to the actual genetic code, epigenetic changes are molecular markers that control how and when genes are expressed, or “turned on.” These controls seem to be how the environment impacts a persons' genetic nature. For instance, a recent study on diet showed that what a mouse's parents ate affected the offspring's likelihood of getting cancer. Studies in humans have suggested that if your paternal grandfather went hungry, you are at a greater risk for heart disease and obesity.
The new study's results “could potentially suggest that whatever one does during their own life span in terms of environment could have an impact on the lives of their descendents,” study researcher Anne Brunet, of Stanford University, told LiveScience. “This could impact how long the organism lives, even though it doesn't affect the genes themselves.” The study was conducted in the model organism C. elegans, a small, wormlike nematode often used in experiments as a stand-in for humans because of their genetic similarities. Even so, the researchers aren't sure how their results would apply to human life span. They are currently studying fish and mice to see if their findings hold true in different species.