There may be a biological link between paternal diet, bodyweight and health at the time of conception and the health of his offspring, according to research in rats.
Writing in The FASEB Journal, scientists from Australia suggest that obesity and diabetes in fathers can lead to altered gene expression in the pancreas and fat of their offspring - possibly leading to a range of metabolic and chronic diseases in their children.
Led by Dr Margaret Morris from the University of New South Wales, the team used a rat model to demonstrate that male rats consuming a high fat diet and who had diabetes and were obese passed on altered gene expressions in the two important metabolic tissues and also affected markers of premature aging, cancer, and chronic degenerative disease.
"While scientists have focused on how the maternal diet affects children's health, this study is part of exciting new research exploring the impact of paternal diet on offspring risk of obesity," said Morris.
"The fact that similar gene markers were affected in pancreas and fat tissue tells us that some of the same pathways are being influenced, possibly from the earliest stages of life."
The lead researcher added that it will now be important to follow up her team's findings in order to learn more about when and how to intervene and reduce the impact of poor paternal metabolic health on his offspring.
"For a long time, we've known that the nutrition and health status of women who are pregnant or who want to get pregnant is critical to the health of her offspring, and we've also suspected that the same is true for fathers to a lesser degree," commented Dr Gerald Weissmann, editor-in-chief of The FASEB Journal. "This report is the first step in understanding exactly how the nutrition and health of fathers affects his children, for better or worse."
Morris and her colleagues made their discovery after testing in two groups of male rats - one of which was obese and diabetic and fed a high-fat diet, while the others were lean and healthy, and fed a normal diet.
The two groups were then mated with lean female rats, before the team examined the offspring.
Analysis revealed that those who were born from obese fathers on a high-fat diet, showed a poor ability to respond to a glucose challenge, even while consuming a healthy diet.
Indeed, the team identified 5108 genes in fat tissue (retroperitoneal white adipose tissue -RpWAT) that were differentially expressed due to the paternal high-fat diet (HFD). According to Morris and her colleagues, the top 5 'significantly enriched networks' in the offspring of the high-fat diet fathers - when compared with those of fathers fed control diet - were: mitochondrial and cellular response to stress, telomerase signalling, cell death and survival, cell cycle, cellular growth and proliferation, and cancer.
In addition the offspring of the obese rats showed gene expression changes in pancreatic islets, which are responsible for producing insulin to control blood glucose and fat tissue, explained the researchers.
"Thus, paternal HFD consumption triggers unique gene signatures, consistent with premature aging and chronic degenerative disorders, in both RpWAT and pancreatic islets," they concluded.
Source: The FASEB Journal
Published online ahead of print, doi:10.1096/fj.13-244046
"Paternal high-fat diet consumption induces common changes in the transcriptomes of retroperitoneal adipose and pancreatic islet tissues in female rat offspring"
Authors: Sheau-Fang Ng, Ruby C. Y. Lin, et al