The findings raise concerns about dads unknowingly passing on harmful traits through molecular markers on the DNA of their sperm.
These epigenetic markers don't change the genetic information, but rather switch parts of the genome on and off. They are susceptible to environment and diet throughout fetal development, but were thought to be wiped clean before birth. New studies, including the one published online Tuesday in Nature Communications, have revealed that some of them may survive all the way from sperm to baby.
When analyzing the sperm epigenomes of the low-nutrition mice, the researchers found abnormalities in epigenetic markers that affected genes linked to development, neurological and psychological disorders and certain cancers.
"We should be looking carefully at the way a man is living his life," said study author and reproductive biologist Sarah Kimmins of McGill University. "Environmental exposure is remembered in the developing sperm and transmitted to offspring."
Since it takes human males about three months to produce fully grown sperm from stem cells, Kimmins speculates that men trying to have children could try cleaning up their diets even temporarily.
"If a man has been living a bad, unhealthy lifestyle, he will not only improve his own health but the health of his offspring," she said.
Image: Man with healthy food in shopping basket, via Shutterstock