Time Magazine, January 2010, had an article about epigenetics. I had heard term used in describing gene mutations but had not realised the implications for our children growing up today. Up in the northern part of Norway there were years of famine and overabundance. Dr Lars Olov Bygren built a random sample of individuals born in 1905 – and went back to look at their parents and grandparents. The doctor and his colleagues worked out how much food was available.
We have long held that evolution took place over millions of years – but it looks as if starvation can leave an imprint on genes. The research by Bygren, showed that boys who went from ordinary eating to gluttony in a single season had sons and grandsons who lived for shorter lives. At first it looks as if the gap was six years – but checking and rechecking developed the gap to an average of 32 years. The research was replicated in a slightly different way with girls – with similar results.
A single winter of over eating could initiate a biological chain that could lead to the death of children and grandchildren years earlier than could be expected.
This is where the mother and fathers of eleven plus children will need to look back at their own lives. Was there a year at university when more alcohol than food was consumed? Did the year out, travelling to the Far East, living on rice and moon shine promote the foundations for the early demise of future generations?
We already know that smoking and over eating can cause us to live shorter lives – but it looks as if these habits can, to a degree, to be passed on to our children. The Time Magazine article looked at research done in England – published in 2006. The 166 men who smoked before they were 11 produced children who were fatter than other children.
Are there implications beyond obesity and longevity? Are children who work on eleven plus papers likely to have children who work on eleven plus papers? We hope so. If, however, mum and dad didn’t eat the right foods, and drank and smoked too much, then it is possible, but we are not sure how likely it is, that their children will struggle with eleven plus papers.
But – and there is always a `but’ – epigenetic changes do not represent evolution – it seems possible that they are a biological response to an environmental change. We all remember Augustus back in AD 402 who said: ` For many, total abstinence is easier than perfect moderation.’ Children will argue: "Not too many papers please!"