Scientists are beginning to understand that sometimes evolution takes a short cut.
The typical Darwinian model of the evolutionary process occurs over thousands of years of adaptation and includes the occasional mutant gene and millennia of environmental and procreative influences.
But there is growing evidence that hundreds of minor “epigenetic” alterations involving the switching “on” or “off” of certain genes can be passed from one generation to the next.
Scientists don’t know for sure how this process works, but they speculate that it allows for pertinent and necessary environmental information to be passed to the new generation making it more prepared for the world it is inheriting.
Climate changes, for example, might lead to certain genes which were inactive for the current generation being activated for the next, making them more able to thrive in warmer or colder conditions.
By comparing the cellular DNA in the sperm of six men who underwent gastric by-pass surgery the researchers were able to note changes that occurred once they had slimmed down.
They counted over 5,000 instances of epigenetic differences between the samples taken before and after the men had surgery and lost their excess weight.
The DNA alterations were all focused on those areas which affect appetite, the Danish team speculated that there were coded changes passed on to the next generation based on the current condition of the individual.
Whether this is to increase or decrease appetite depending on the body mass of the donor is another matter for speculation but, as the team leader Dr Roman Barres pointed out, until recent decades the ability to consume and store large quantities of energy would have been an evolutionary advantage.
The net result could easily be a genetic predisposition to over eating and obesity.
It seems we are not only what we eat, but what our fathers’ ate too.
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