In the study, researchers found that supplements given to pregnant mice not only affected the coloring of their offspring, but their offspring's offspring as well.
The findings appear in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Researchers included David Martin, MD, and Kenneth Beckman, PhD, of the Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute in Oakland, Calif.
The findings are a first, Martin says in a Children's Hospital news release.
"Although researchers have long known that there is a connection between a mother's diet and her children's health, this is the first case in which the relationship between a mother's diet and the biology of her grandchildren has been mapped to a single gene and a defined diet," Martin says.
"It is possible that the maternal diet could have implications that stretch over decades, perhaps centuries," Beckman adds.
Martin's team bred yellow-haired female and male mice. The mice's yellow hair was a marker for a certain mouse gene.
The scientists then split the pregnant mice into two groups.
One group of mice got a standard diet. The other group got the same diet, except for one week, when their food was laced with certain dietary supplements, including folic acid and vitamin B-12.
The pregnant mice that ate the fortified food for a week were more likely to give birth to brown-haired mice.
When their brown-haired babies grew up, the females were more likely to give birth to brown-haired mice — even though they had only eaten standard food without supplements.
The scientists concluded that the supplements affected the mice's hair color gene, with effects lasting at least two generations.
Diet Affects Generations
"We found that even when we stopped providing specific supplements during pregnancy, the past effect of supplements persisted," Beckman says in the hospital news release.
"Our work provides convincing evidence of complex transgenerational effects of nutrition on health, and provides an experimental model for exploring these relationships in detail," Martin says.
The researchers haven't done similar tests on people yet and are not offering specific dietary recommendations for pregnant women.
SOURCES: Cropley, J. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Nov. 14, 2006; vol 103: pp 17308-17312. News release, Children's Hospital & Research Center at Oakland.
By Miranda Hitti
Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario