Epigenetics: can IVF affect your baby’s genes?

Epigenetics: can IVF affect your baby’s genes?

 

baby twins drinking milk from bottle holding by their parents

Epigenetics is a branch of science that’s increasingly relevant to pregnancies. And IVF pregnancies – especially using donor eggs or donor sperm. Why? Because epigenetics looks at the way lifestyle factors might affect your baby’s genes. If you have a donor-egg child, it could mean she takes after you, after all.

Epigenetics is new, and very complex. Basically, everyone has a unique set of genes, set out in a particular sequence. Epigenetics looks at the millions of markers dotted around those genes. Think of them as genetic traffic lights.

The gene sequence can’t be changed. But these markers could alter the way the genes are ‘expressed’. What inherited genes end up doing, or not doing, could be based on lifestyle factors. Think of a music album. You can’t alter the music. But you can change the volume and the tracks you choose to play.

So what role does epigenetics play in IVF treatment? Patients using donor eggs think their babies won’t take after them. But that’s not quite true if you believe in epigenetics. Your uterine environment, stress levels, diet and behaviour may influence the way your baby’s genes are expressed. This offers, in mots cases, comfort to donor-egg patients. There may be more of you in your child than you think.

A study of maternal diet and baby genes found that a mother’s diet at the time of conception may alter gene expression. The DNA of the babies conceived in the rainy season was expressed differently to those conceived in the dry season – when maternal diet wasn’t that great. The study concluded that a healthy diet is important when you’re trying for a baby.

Epigenetics is linked to events, not just lifestyle. In 1944, the Nazis stopped food getting into parts of the Netherlands. Thousands died of malnutrition. The babies that survived were, unsurprisingly, underweight. But so were a number of babies born, years later, to those children. Their genes had been damaged. The DNA sequence was the same, but the expression of those genes had been passed down. Something influenced the marker that turned on the gene, or genes, linked to weight.

Does IVF itself expose the fetus to epigenetic dangers? A small Danish study suggested that babies born via assisted reproduction (i.e. IVF) had a slightly higher chance of getting childhood cancer. One possible reason was that epigenetic changes might occur in the IVF process. Manipulation of the embryos and IVF medication may be the reason. But the risk is minimal.

A more recent study, in 2019, found epigenetic differences between IVF babies and non-IVF babies. But those differences vanished in later life, and didn’t impact on their health. Another 2019 study into fertility treatment and epigenetics did see a small genetic health risk to IVF babies. Very small.

Epigenetics is very new. It’s too early to claim lifestyle and environmental factors before and during pregnancy (whether via natural conception or IVF) affect the baby’s genes in a significant way. Or that personality traits of the birth mother might impact on the genes of her donor-egg child.

But there’s clearer evidence that a healthy lifestyle before and during pregnancy makes your baby epigenetically better off. If epigenetics is about parental health, it’s a wake-up call to the benefits of looking after yourself.

7 Comments
  • Debra
    Posted at 23:25h, 12 August Reply

    I find this article very interesting. I was artificially inseminated with my husband’s semen. A procedure had been done to nourish the semen beforehand. Several years prior, I had taken fertility drugs. This lasted up to and including conception. The child was born healthy, by appearances, but by puberty my son was showing strong sociopathic tendencies.
    I have a grandmother and brother who were both extremely narcissistic, as is the child’s father; but I would have expected such tendencies to be tempered with all the good genetics & loving upbringing he received. He was even breastfed 4 years. Generally this produces compassion and attachment. He has neither. I can’t help but wonder if the drugs I took and the sperm wash could have caused this ‘miswiring’.

    • Sharon Howard
      Posted at 10:11h, 17 November Reply

      Having a troubled teen is very upsetting. The concept of epigenetics is more about those who have had a baby that is not genetically theirs but over time and through nurturing, develops the traits and behaviours of the parents who are raising it. Not so much about the babies that are biologically ours. It is unlikely that assisted reproduction using your own eggs and sperm would cause a sociopathic disorder. We are all born hardwired with the capacity for empathy, it’s development requires experience and practise. It’s a work in progress from babyhood through to adolescence and beyond. A child needs to learn how to regulate their own emotional responses, to understand they are a separate being from us and to know their feelings and be able to recognise them. But it is up to us to teach them that by the way we parent from a very, very early age. The way we teach them to self regulate emotions is very important. If those who are dysfunctional have a great deal to do with a child’s upbringing that could contribute to issues but the genetics by themselves, unlikely.

  • Debra
    Posted at 23:25h, 12 August Reply

    I find this article very interesting. I was artificially inseminated with my husband’s semen. A procedure had been done to nourish the semen beforehand. Several years prior, I had taken fertility drugs. This lasted up to and including conception. The child was born healthy, by appearances, but by puberty my son was showing strong sociopathic tendencies.
    I have a grandmother and brother who were both extremely narcissistic, as is the child’s father; but I would have expected such tendencies to be tempered with all the good genetics & loving upbringing he received. He was even breastfed 4 years. Generally this produces compassion and attachment. He has neither. I can’t help but wonder if the drugs I took and the sperm wash could have caused this ‘miswiring’.

    • Sharon Howard
      Posted at 10:11h, 17 November Reply

      Having a troubled teen is very upsetting. The concept of epigenetics is more about those who have had a baby that is not genetically theirs but over time and through nurturing, develops the traits and behaviours of the parents who are raising it. Not so much about the babies that are biologically ours. It is unlikely that assisted reproduction using your own eggs and sperm would cause a sociopathic disorder. We are all born hardwired with the capacity for empathy, it’s development requires experience and practise. It’s a work in progress from babyhood through to adolescence and beyond. A child needs to learn how to regulate their own emotional responses, to understand they are a separate being from us and to know their feelings and be able to recognise them. But it is up to us to teach them that by the way we parent from a very, very early age. The way we teach them to self regulate emotions is very important. If those who are dysfunctional have a great deal to do with a child’s upbringing that could contribute to issues but the genetics by themselves, unlikely.

  • Cristina Scala
    Posted at 18:00h, 11 June Reply

    Was wondering if the baby from ivf would get a new blood type or new genetic makeup from the “host” mother as apposed to blood type and DNA they were conceived with- either in Petrie dish or in womb? Simply put.. Before implantation..Compared to after birth, is the DNA the same? Or different?

  • Cristina Scala
    Posted at 18:00h, 11 June Reply

    Was wondering if the baby from ivf would get a new blood type or new genetic makeup from the “host” mother as apposed to blood type and DNA they were conceived with- either in Petrie dish or in womb? Simply put.. Before implantation..Compared to after birth, is the DNA the same? Or different?

  • Gloria Obaadu ogbuenyi
    Posted at 19:44h, 03 December Reply

    Gloria O. O

    I am very interested in this article. After many years of treatment for infertility got pregnant and had positive in DNA early gender test that I was carrying twins baby girls. After delivery they turned to be my siblings.. I would like to know how it come about. All the babies have the same DNA as my siblings

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