Growing up poor changes DNA, scientists find

Apr 10, 2019, 4:37 PM

Image of a strand of DNA. Story involves how DNA evidence is being used by multiple agencies within...

DNA evidence has recently exonerated a 72-year-old man of a 1975 rape conviction. (Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

Researchers in the US and Canada recently discovered that growing up poor can change almost 8 percent of your genetic code.

The new study found the change can be passed on to you from your parents or grandparents, so, in other words, you may suffer from ill health because your ancestors grew up poor.

The research team identified 1,537 genes that were modified in children who were raised in low socio-economic status (SES) conditions.

Tuesday on the JayMac News Show, Luke Gangi-Wellman, STEAM Education coordinator at the Leonardo museum in Salt Lake City, explained that the study of “epigenetics is how your environment shapes your genes. This is one of the first studies to show that there are changes to sections of the genes that are being read in a person who has been through poverty versus a person who hasn’t. . . . It’s not just if you’ve been through poverty. It’s if your parents went through poverty. If your grandparents went through poverty, that could affect your genetics today.”

Host Jay McFarland, who said he grew up in poverty while his children did not, wondered what effects he might have passed on to them.

Gangi-Wellman replied that Jay could have passed along to his children a possible genetic link to addictions, obesity, depression, inflammation, and a lower level of serotonin, which contributes to well being and happiness, among other things.

Gangi-Wellman said the study “is the first piece of the puzzle” to show causation as opposed to just correlation. In other words, poverty causes changes to the genetic code or DNA.

“Your body has to change itself if you’re in poverty,” Jay said. “You can see your body making adjustments to cope with that. I wouldn’t have thought that was on a genetic level.”

He noted while growing up, junk food was a rarity, and “when it came into the family, as kids, we were ravenous beasts.” Even today, he said, when a bag of Oreo cookies is opened, “It’s eaten until it’s gone.”

By contrast, he said his wife can store a candy bar in her purse for six months without touching it.

“All she needs to know is it’s there if she needs it. It drives me out of my mind,” Jay said.

Gangi-Wellman said epigenetics plays a crucial role in a child’s development between birth and about 7 years of age. If a person is going through deprivation during that time, “It’s going to affect how your brain is wired.”

And that is passed on to your future generations.

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Growing up poor changes DNA, scientists find