Well-fed grandfathers spell trouble for grandsons


Analysis finds link between access to food and cancer two generations down the line. Samantha Page reports.


The bond between a grandfather and a grandson is powerful, and possibly oncogenic.

The bond between a grandfather and a grandson is powerful, and possibly oncogenic.

Rich-Joseph Facun/Getty Images

If grandfather’s family didn’t put much food on the table when he was a child, that could be good news for you – at least, if you’re a man.

Grandsons of well-fed grandfathers are more likely to die of cancer and have higher overall mortality rates than those of grandfathers who did not have abundant food during pre-pubescence, according to a multigenerational analysis published in the journal Nature Communications.

“We found a clear association between paternal grandfathers with good access to food and their grandsons’ mortality from cancer,” write the researchers, led by Denny Vågerö of Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden.

The phenomenon of environmental factors affecting offspring is known as transgenerational response. In this instance, it was only found along the male line.

Vågerö and his colleagues looked at data from the Uppsala Birth Cohort Multigenerational Study, which tracked more than 12,000 people born between 1915 and 1929 at Akademiska Hospital in Uppsala, Sweden, and two generations of their offspring.

The analysis divided grandparents into people who experienced “good” or “poor” harvests during pre-pubescence.

The numbers in this study are 38 times larger than the those contained in the Överkalix cohort, used in a previous study that found grandsons of well-fed grandfathers were more likely to die of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

The new analysis found that these particular disease risks extended for only one generation, not two.

“We could not reproduce their often-quoted finding that paternal grandfathers’ exposure to an abundant harvest predicts elevated diabetes mortality in their grandchildren,” the authors say.

“However, based on 289 deaths, we did find that male offspring of fathers with good access to food were more prone to diabetes.”

The grandson-associated cancer risk was robust, although causality remains unclear.

The researchers hypothesise that good access to nutrition could trigger a signal that is captured by male gametes, possibly through DNA methylation, a mechanism of epigenetic gene regulation. The changes could then be passed down to future generations.

“Abundance of food, when the body is just about to leap into puberty, i.e., an energy demanding development, may also influence genome-wide DNA methylation patterns in boys and girls, including in germ-line DNA, and impact on small noncoding RNAs in sperm cells,” the study concludes.

  1. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-018-07617-9
  2. https://www.chess.su.se/ubcosmg/
  3. https://www.nature.com/articles/5201832
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