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Genetics

01 May 2019

Poverty could leave its mark on genes

It is clear that poverty is a powerful determinant of health, but the mechanisms through which our bodies 'remember' the experiences of poverty are not known.

Poverty may influence how genes function, researchers report.

Specifically, they found that poverty is associated with levels of DNA methylation – which can shape gene expression – in nearly 10% of genes.

No nature vs. nurture

The findings are significant for a number of reasons, the researchers said.

"First, we have known for a long time that [poverty] is a powerful determinant of health, but the underlying mechanisms through which our bodies 'remember' the experiences of poverty are not known," said study author Thomas McDade. He directs the Laboratory for Human Biology Research at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

The findings also show that life experiences can shape genetic structure and function.

"There is no nature vs. nurture," McDade said in a Northwestern news release.

He was surprised to discover so many links between socioeconomic status and DNA methylation across such a large number of genes.

A lasting molecular imprint

"This pattern highlights a potential mechanism through which poverty can have a lasting impact on a wide range of physiological systems and processes," McDade said.

Further research is needed to determine the health effects of these DNA changes at the genetic sites identified in this study, he said.

Many of the affected genes are associated with processes related to immune responses to infection, skeletal development and development of the nervous system, McDade noted.

"These are the areas we'll be focusing on to determine if DNA methylation is indeed an important mechanism through which socioeconomic status can leave a lasting molecular imprint on the body, with implications for health later in life," he said.

The study was published recently in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

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