A transgenerational view of the rise in obesity

This 2019 Washington State University rodent study found epigenetically inherited transgenerational effects in great-grand offspring due to their great-grandmothers’ toxicant exposures during pregnancy:

“Previous studies found an increased susceptibility to obesity in F3 generation rats ancestrally exposed to the pesticide DDT, and an increase in a lean phenotype in the F3 generation rats ancestrally exposed to the herbicide atrazine. The present study investigated whether there were common DMR [differential DNA methylated region] and associated genes between the control, DDT, and atrazine lineage male and female adipocytes in order to identify potential novel gene pathways modulated by DNA methylation.

Comparison of epigenetic alterations indicated that there were substantial overlaps between the different treatment lineage groups for both the lean and obese phenotypes. Novel correlated genes and gene pathways associated with DNA methylation were identified, and may aid in the discovery of potential therapeutic targets for metabolic diseases such as obesity.

Given that the first widespread exposures to gestating human females started in the 1950s, the majority of the subsequent F3 generation are adults today. Ancestral exposures to environmental toxicants like DDT may have had a role in the dramatic rise in obesity rates worldwide.”


This same research group noted in Transgenerational diseases caused by great-grandmother DDT exposure:

“DDT was banned in the USA in 1973, but it is still recommended by the World Health Organization for indoor residual spray. India is by far the largest consumer of DDT worldwide.

India has experienced a 5-fold increase of type II diabetes over the last three decades with a predisposition to obesity already present at birth in much of the population. Although a large number of factors may contribute to this increased incidence of obesity, the potential contribution of ancestral toxicant exposures in the induction of obesity susceptibility requires further investigation.”

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/21623945.2019.1693747 “Adipocyte epigenetic alterations and potential therapeutic targets in transgenerationally inherited lean and obese phenotypes following ancestral exposures”

Epigenetic transgenerational inheritance extends to the great-great-grand offspring

This 2019 rodent study by the Washington State University labs of Dr. Michael Skinner continued to F4 generation great-great-grand offspring, and demonstrated that epigenetic inheritance mechanisms are similar to imprinted genes:

“Epigenetic transgenerational inheritance potentially impacts disease etiology, phenotypic variation, and evolution. An increasing number of environmental factors from nutrition to toxicants have been shown to promote the epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of disease.

Imprinted genes are a special class of genes since their DNA methylation patterns are unchanged over the generation and are not affected by the methylation erasure occurring early in development. The transgenerational epigenetic alterations in the germline appear to be permanently reprogrammed like imprinted genes, and appear protected from this DNA methylation erasure and reprogramming at fertilization in the subsequent generations. Similar to imprinted genes, the epigenetic transgenerational germline epimutations appear to have a methylation erasure in the primordial germ cells involving an epigenetic molecular memory.

Comparison of the transgenerational F3 generation, with the outcross to the F4 generation through the paternal or maternal lineages, allows an assessment of parent-of-origin transmission of disease or pathology. Observations provided examples of the following:

  1. Pathology that required combined contribution of both paternal and maternal alleles to promote disease [testis and ovarian disease];
  2. Pathology that is derived from the opposite sex allele such as father to daughter [kidney disease] or mother to son [prostate disease];
  3. Pathology that is derived from either parent-of-origin alleles independently [obesity];
  4. Pathology that is transmitted within the same sex, such as maternal to daughter [mammary tumor development]; and
  5. Pathology that is observed only following a specific parent-of-origin outcross [both F4 male obesity and F4 female kidney disease in the vinclozolin lineage].”

The study showed that epigenetically inherited legacies extend to the fifth generation. Do any of us know our ancestors’ medical histories back to our great-great-grandparents?

Will toxicologists take their jobs seriously enough to look for possible effects in at least one generation that had no direct toxicant exposure?

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0012160619303471 “Epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of parent-of-origin allelic transmission of outcross pathology and sperm epimutations”

Maternal obesity causes heart disease in every offspring generation

This 2019 St. Louis rodent study found:

“We hypothesized that maternal obesity induces cardiac mitochondrial dysfunction in the offspring via transgenerational inheritance of abnormal oocyte mitochondria. All F1 to F3 descendants bred via the female in each generation were nonobese and demonstrated cardiac mitochondrial abnormalities.

Contrary to our hypothesis, male F1 also transmitted these effects to their offspring, ruling out maternal mitochondria as the primary mode of transmission. We conclude that transmission of obesity-induced effects in the oocyte nucleus rather than abnormal mitochondria underlie transgenerational inheritance of cardiac mitochondrial defects in descendants of obese females.”


For some reason, the researchers didn’t cite any of Dr. Michael Skinner’s research on epigenetic transgenerational inheritance. Their time, efforts, and resources would have been more productive had they used Dr. Skinner’s studies – such as the 2018 Epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of ovarian disease – as guides.

A podcast with the researchers is available here.

https://www.physiology.org/doi/abs/10.1152/ajpheart.00013.2019 “Maternal High-Fat, High-Sucrose Diet Induces Transgenerational Cardiac Mitochondrial Dysfunction Independent of Maternal Mitochondrial Inheritance” (not freely available)

Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance of thyroid hormone sensitivity

My 500th curation is a 2019 Portuguese human study of Azorean islanders:

“This study demonstrates a transgenerational epigenetic inheritance in humans produced by exposure to high TH [thyroid hormone] in fetal life, in the absence of maternal influences secondary to thyrotoxicosis. The inheritance is along the male line.

The present work took advantage of the relatively frequent occurrence of fetal exposure to high TH levels in the Azorean island of São Miguel. This is the consequence of a missense mutation in the THRB gene causing the amino-acid replacement R243Q, resulting in reduced affinity of the TH receptor beta (TRβ) for TH and thus RTHβ.

Its origin has been traced to a couple who lived at the end of the 19th century. F0 represented the third generation and F3 the sixth and seventh generation descendant.”


These researchers provided the first adequately evidenced human transgenerational epigenetic inheritance study! However, the lead sentence in its Abstract wasn’t correct:

“Evidence for transgenerational epigenetic inheritance in humans is still controversial, given the requirement to demonstrate persistence of the phenotype across three generations.”

Although found in this study, there is no “requirement to demonstrate persistence of the phenotype.” Observing the same phenotype in each generation is NOT required for human transgenerational epigenetic inheritance to exist!

Animal transgenerational studies have shown that epigenetic inheritance mechanisms may both express different phenotypes for each generation:

and entirely skip a phenotype in one or more generations!

  • Transgenerational pathological traits induced by prenatal immune activation found a F2 and F3 generation phenotype of impaired sociability, abnormal fear expression and behavioral despair – effects that weren’t present in the F1 offspring;
  • The transgenerational impact of Roundup exposure “Found negligible impacts of glyphosate on the directly exposed F0 generation, or F1 generation offspring pathology. In contrast, dramatic increases in pathologies in the F2 generation grand-offspring, and F3 transgenerational great-grand-offspring were observed.” (a disease phenotype similarly skipped the first offspring generation);
  • Epigenetic transgenerational inheritance mechanisms that lead to prostate disease “There was also no increase in prostate histopathology in the directly exposed F1 or F2 generation.” (a prostate disease phenotype skipped the first two male offspring generations before it was observed in the F3 male offspring); and
  • Epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of ovarian disease “There was no increase in ovarian disease in direct fetal exposed F1 or germline exposed F2 generation. The F3 generation can have disease while the F1 and F2 generations do not, due to this difference in the molecular mechanisms involved.” (an ovarian disease phenotype similarly skipped the first two female offspring generations before it was observed in the F3 female offspring).

Details of epigenetic inheritance mechanisms were provided in Another important transgenerational epigenetic inheritance study. Mechanisms from fetal exposure to the fungicide vinclozolin were compared with mechanisms from fetal DDT exposure, and summarized as:

The fetal exposure initiates a developmental cascade of aberrant epigenetic programming, and does NOT simply induce a specific number of DMRs [DNA methylation regions] that are maintained throughout development.

I emailed references to the studies in the first five above curations to the current study’s corresponding coauthor. They replied “What is the mechanism for the transgenerational inheritance you describe?” and my reply included a link to the sixth curation’s study.

Are there still other transgenerational epigenetically inherited effects due to fetal exposure to high thyroid hormone levels?

https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/full/10.1089/thy.2019.0080 “Reduced Sensitivity to Thyroid Hormone as a Transgenerational Epigenetic Marker Transmitted Along the Human Male Line”

A drug that countered effects of a traumatizing mother

This 2019 US rodent study concerned transmitting poor maternal care to the next generation:

“The quality of parental care received during development profoundly influences an individual’s phenotype, including that of maternal behavior. Infant experiences with a caregiver have lifelong behavioral consequences.

Maternal behavior is a complex behavior requiring the recruitment of multiple brain regions including the nucleus accumbens, bed nucleus of the stria terminalis, ventral tegmental area, prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and medial preoptic area. Dysregulation within this circuitry can lead to altered or impaired maternal responsiveness.

We administered zebularine, a drug known to alter DNA methylation, to dams exposed during infancy to the scarcity-adversity model of low nesting resources, and then characterized the quality of their care towards their offspring.

  1. We replicate that dams with a history of maltreatment mistreat their own offspring.
  2. We show that maltreated-dams treated with zebularine exhibit lower levels of adverse care toward their offspring.
  3. We show that administration of zebularine in control dams (history of nurturing care) enhances levels of adverse care.
  4. We show altered methylation and gene expression in maltreated dams normalized by zebularine.

These findings lend support to the hypothesis that epigenetic alterations resulting from maltreatment causally relate to behavioral outcomes.”


“Maternal behavior is an intergenerational behavior. It is important to establish the neurobiological underpinnings of aberrant maternal behavior and explore treatments that can improve maternal behavior to prevent the perpetuation of poor maternal care across generations.”

The study authors demonstrated intergenerational epigenetic effects, and missed an opportunity to also investigate transgenerational epigenetically inherited effects. They cited reference 60 for the first part of the above quotation, but that reviewer misused the transgenerational term by applying it to grand-offspring instead of the great-grand-offspring.

There were resources available to replicate the study authors’ previous findings, which didn’t show anything new. Why not use such resources to uncover evidence even more applicable to humans by extending experiments to great-grand-offspring that have no potential germline exposure to the initial damaging cause?

Could a study design similar to A limited study of parental transmission of anxiety/stress-reactive traits have been integrated? That study’s thorough removal of parental behavior would be an outstanding methodology to confirm by falsifiability whether parental behavior is both an intergenerational and a transgenerational epigenetic inheritance mechanism.

Rodent great-grand-offspring can be studied in < 9 months. It takes > 50 years for human studies to reach the transgenerational generation. Why not attempt to “prevent the perpetuation of poor maternal care across generations?”

Isn’t it a plausible hypothesis that humans “with a history of maltreatment mistreat their own offspring?” Isn’t it worth the extra effort to extend animal research to investigate this unfortunate chain?

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-46539-4 “Pharmacological manipulation of DNA methylation normalizes maternal behavior, DNA methylation, and gene expression in dams with a history of maltreatment”

Transgenerational diseases caused by great-grandmother DDT exposure

This 2019 rodent study from the labs of Dr. Michael Skinner at Washington State University found:

“The exposure of a gestating female during fetal gonadal sex determination to DDT can promote the epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of obesity and disease.

Transgenerational pathologies (F3 generation) of late puberty, obesity, testis, prostate, and multiple disease were observed in the DDT lineage males. Obesity, ovarian, kidney, and multiple disease transgenerational pathologies (F3 generation) were observed in the DDT lineage females.

Epigenetic biomarkers or diagnostics provide preliminary evidence for preconception diagnosis of increased susceptibility to transgenerational disease in offspring.”


For those of us who thought DDT was discontinued:

“DDT was banned in the USA in 1973, but it is still recommended by the World Health Organization for indoor residual spray. India is by far the largest consumer of DDT worldwide.

India has experienced a 5-fold increase of type II diabetes over the last three decades with a predisposition to obesity already present at birth in much of the population. Although a large number of factors may contribute to this increased incidence of obesity, the potential contribution of ancestral toxicant exposures in the induction of obesity susceptibility requires further investigation.”

Where are the human studies of this subject? Why aren’t follow-on generations’ diseases traced to the likely sources?

How many F3 great-grandchildren of women exposed to DDT during pregnancy are alive today? Millions, tens of millions?

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6536675 “Sperm epimutation biomarkers of obesity and pathologies following DDT induced epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of disease”

Another important transgenerational epigenetic inheritance study

This 2019 Washington State University rodent study from Dr. Michael Skinner’s lab found:

“A cascade of epigenetic alterations initiated in the PGCs [primordial germ cells of F3 males] appears to be required to alter the epigenetic programming during spermatogenesis to modify the sperm epigenome involved in the transgenerational epigenetic inheritance phenomenon.

Following fertilization there is a DNA methylation erasure to generate the stem cells in the early embryo, which then remethylate in a cell type-specific manner. The DNA methylation erasure is thought to, in part, reset deleterious epigenetics in the germline. However, imprinted gene DNA methylation sites and induced transgenerational epimutations appear to be protected from this DNA methylation erasure.

A germline with an altered epigenome has the capacity to alter the early embryo’s stem cell’s epigenome and transcriptome that can subsequently impact the epigenomes and transcriptomes of all derived somatic cells. Therefore, an altered sperm epigenome has the capacity to transmit phenotypes transgenerationally. Experiments have demonstrated that epigenetic inheritance can also be transmitted through the female germline.

Previously, the agricultural fungicide vinclozolin was found to promote the transgenerational inheritance of sperm differential DNA methylation regions (DMRs) termed epimutations that help mediate this epigenetic inheritance. The current study was designed to investigate the developmental origins of the transgenerational DMRs during gametogenesis.

The current study with vinclozolin-induced transgenerational inheritance demonstrates that sperm DMRs also originate during both spermatogenesis and earlier stages of germline development, but at distinct developmental stages. The fetal exposure initiates a developmental cascade (i.e., distinct developmental origins) of aberrant epigenetic programming, and does not simply induce a specific number of DMRs that are maintained throughout development.


The study’s main hypotheses were:

“Following fertilization, the hypothesis is that the transgenerational epimutations modify early embryonic transcriptomes and epigenomes to re-establish the cascade for the next generation.

As the individual develops, all somatic cells have altered epigenomes and transcriptomes to promote disease susceptibility later in life.”

Researchers: adopt these hypotheses, and apply them to human studies.

1. Don’t get off track by requiring that the same phenotype must be observed in each generation for there to be transgenerational epigenetic inheritance, because:

“The fetal exposure..does not simply induce a specific number of DMRs that are maintained throughout development.”

Animal transgenerational studies have shown that epigenetic inheritance mechanisms may both express different phenotypes for each generation, and entirely skip a phenotype in one or more generations!

2. Don’t limit your study designs to the F1 children as did:

3. Don’t stop at the F2 grandchildren as did:

4. Continue studies on to F3 great-grandchildren who had no direct exposure to the altering stimulus. Keep in the forefront of your research proposals that there are probably more than 10,000,000 F3 descendants of DES-exposed women just in the US.

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/15592294.2019.1614417?needAccess=true “Transgenerational sperm DNA methylation epimutation developmental origins following ancestral vinclozolin exposure”