Epigenetics News

Epigenetics: What China’s government famine can teach us about inherited starvation effects

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What difference does it make over time?/ibreakstock, Fotolia

From ScienceDaily:

The increased risk of hyperglycemia associated with prenatal exposure to famine is also passed down to the next generation, according to a new study of hundreds of families affected by widespread starvation in mid-20th Century China.

Among 983 people gestated during the famine years, 31.2 percent had hyperglycemia and 11.2 percent had type 2 diabetes. By comparison, among 1,085 people gestated just after the famine ended, the prevalence of hyperglycemia was 16.9 percent, and the prevalence of type 2 diabetes as 5.6 percent. Controlling for factors such as gender, smoking, physical activity, calorie consumption and body-mass index, the researchers calculated that in utero famine exposure was associated with 1.93-times higher odds of hyperglycemia and a 1.75 times greater chance of type 2 diabetes.

The next generation sustained the significant risk of hyperglycemia when both parents had been famine-exposed. Overall in the second generation, hyperglycemia prevalence were 5.7 percent for 332 people with no famine-exposed parents, 10.0 percent for 251 people with famine-exposed fathers, 10.6 percent for 263 people with famine-exposed mothers, and 11.3 percent for the 337 people for whom both parents had famine exposure. Adjusting for all the same lifestyle factors, the offspring of two famine-exposed parents had 2.02 times the odds of hyperglycemia of people with no famine-exposed parents. The odds of hyperglycemia from one-parent exposure were also substantially elevated but not quite statistically significant.

A prior team’s study in mice showed a multigenerational effect on metabolism, and other studies of famine exposure in people have produced evidence of changes in the endocrine systems and in prenatal gene expression in reproductive systems. Paper. (paywall) – J. Li, S. Liu, S. Li, R. Feng, L. Na, X. Chu, X. Wu, Y. Niu, Z. Sun, T. Han, H. Deng, X. Meng, H. Xu, Z. Zhang, Q. Qu, Q. Zhang, Y. Li, C. Sun. Prenatal exposure to famine and the development of hyperglycemia and type 2 diabetes in adulthood across consecutive generations: a population-based cohort study of families in Suihua, China. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2016; DOI: 10.3945/ajcn.116.138792 More.

The famine in question was the government-imposed Great Leap Forward, estimated to have killed up to 45 million people.

A decade after the Communist party took power in 1949, promising to serve the people, the greatest manmade disaster in history stalks an already impoverished land. In an unremarkable city in central Henan province, more than a million people – one in eight – are wiped out by starvation and brutality over three short years. In one area, officials commandeer more grain than the farmers have actually grown. In barely nine months, more than 12,000 people – a third of the inhabitants – die in a single commune; a tenth of its households are wiped out. Thirteen children beg officials for food and are dragged deep into the mountains, where they die from exposure and starvation. A teenage orphan kills and eats her four-year-old brother. Forty-four of a village’s 45 inhabitants die; the last remaining resident, a woman in her 60s, goes insane. Others are tortured, beaten or buried alive for declaring realistic harvests, refusing to hand over what little food they have, stealing scraps or simply angering officials.

When the head of a production brigade dares to state the obvious – that there is no food – a leader warns him: “That’s right-deviationist thinking. You’re viewing the problem in an overly simplistic matter.”

At least one can talk about it, outside of China, now.

See also: Epigenetic change: Lamarck, wake up, you’re wanted in the conference room!

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