When teenagers smoke, it increases the risk that their future children will pass on epigenetic traits linked to asthma, obesity and lower lung function.
A new study involving experts from the University of Bergen (Uib) in Norway has identified epigenetic markers in children linked to father smoking before the children are born. The study results have been published in the journal Clinical Epigenetics.
Smoking habits of fathers were determined
For the new research, the team analyzed the epigenetic profiles of 875 participants aged between seven and 50 years. In addition, the smoking habits of the fathers were examined – in particular whether they had smoked when they were young.
It turned out that children of fathers who had smoked before the age of 15 showed epigenetic changes at 19 sites that were assigned to 14 genes, the researchers report.
Risk of asthma, obesity and breathing problems
The changes in the way things are done, known as methylation, regulate gene expression and have been linked to asthma, obesity and wheezing.
The health of future generations obviously also depends on the actions and decisions made at a young age. This particularly affects boys in early puberty and women before and during pregnancy, explains study author Professor Cecilie Svanes.
“The changes in epigenetic markers were much more pronounced in children whose fathers started smoking during puberty than in children whose fathers had started smoking at some point before conception,” adds study author Dr. Negusse Kitaba added in a press release.
Stem cells are formed during early puberty, which produce sperm for life. Therefore, early puberty can represent a critical time window for physiological changes in boys, emphasizes Dr. Kitaba.
The team also compared paternal smoking profiles before conception to those of people who smoked themselves and those whose mothers smoked before conception. It found that 16 of the 19 markers associated with smoking in teenage fathers were not associated with mothers who smoke or themselves smoke.
“This suggests that these new methylation biomarkers only appear in children whose fathers were exposed to smoking in early puberty,” explains study author Dr. Gerd Toril Morkve Knudsen.
Epigenetic changes attributed to nicotine?
Since various studies on animals indicate that nicotine could cause the epigenetic changes in the offspring, study author Professor John Holloway believes that the use of e-cigarettes with nicotine in teenagers should also be viewed critically.
The results of the current study come from participants whose fathers smoked as adolescents in the 1960s and 1970s. At that time smoking tobacco was very common, nowadays it is more like vaping.
Whether the use of electronic cigarettes will lead to similar effects over generations is unclear. However, one should not wait a few generations to see what harmful effects could occur. “We have to act now,” emphasizes Dr. Holloway. (as)