Scientists and physicians have long known that the health of a mother during pregnancy affects the health of her offspring. However, most of the direct causes and effects have been unclear up until now. New research published this month in the journal Cell Death and Differentiation shows one way that poor nutrition in the womb contributes to a greater risk of type 2 diabetes and other diseases in later life.
The study by a team from the University of Cambridge and the University of Leicester compared the results of a low-protein diet given to pregnant rats to those of a full balanced diet given to a control group and found that the undernourished mothers produced offspring with less ability to correctly store fat cells.
Fat must be stored in the right areas of the body, which consist of the adipose tissue that is specialised to synthesise and contain fat. When that tissue can’t store all of the body’s fat cells, those cells have to go somewhere else, and they get deposited in organs such as the liver, where they create problems that lead to disease.
The researchers isolated a molecule called miR-483-3P that they found controls the process of fat storage. They discovered that in both rats and humans, that particular molecule was found in higher levels in the offspring of mothers who received poor nutrition during pregnancy. That in turn resulted in smaller fat cells, which were unable to provide adequate storage in the right places.
They also found higher levels of miR-483-3P in people who were underweight at birth. MiR-483-3P works by suppressing a protein they call GDF3, and low levels of that protein were found in adults with low birth weights. Rats (and people) on high-calorie diets with low levels of GDF3 don’t appear to be fat because the fat cells are being stored in the right places, but they are at higher risk of diseases such as type 2 diabetes.