The Memory of Starvation

November 13th, 2014 by MorganDowney Leave a reply »

Movie buffs may remember the 1999 movie A Bridge Too Far and the book by Cornelius Ryan of the same title on which it was based. The book and movie told the tale of an Allied operation to liberate Holland and achieve a bridgehead over the Rhine and into Germany. It failed. The book and movie only dealt with the military aspects of Operation Market-Garden, as it was called. Left out was what happened afterward.

The Nazi regime was going to punish the Dutch for their support to the combined English-American invasion of Holland. So they cut off food supplies to Holland in the winter of 1944-5. Thousands starved. Subsequently, researchers found that women who were pregnant during this period had offspring who were more prone to obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease and who were also smaller than those who were not exposed to the “Hunger Winter.” But, they also found that the grandchildren of those women had similar health problems. This helped establish the field of epi-genetics, i.e., that there were inheritance factors other than genes which might respond to early environmental stimulus, or the lack thereof. Now, in perhaps a groundbreaking paper, Dr. Oded Rechavi and colleagues may have found the mechanism. By studying worms exposed to starvation conditions, they observed a mechanism they call, ‘small RNA inheritance’ that enables worms to pass on the memory of starvation to at least three generations, perhaps more. At the very least, the study demonstrates that we still have a lot to learn about the gene-environment interaction as it affects the development of obesity and that those who say obesity is not genetic  only show they don’t know much about genetics or obesity.