Ancestral prepubescent smoking linked to increased body fat in women

A new study, conducted by the University of Bristol and published today in Scientific Reports [21 January], reported an increase in body fat in women whose grandfathers or great-grandfathers started smoking before puberty.

Experiments with model studies elsewhere have shown that exposure of males to certain chemicals prior to breeding can have effects on their offspring. There have, however, been doubts as to whether this phenomenon is present in humans and whether any apparent effects can be more easily explained by other factors.

To study the effects of prepubertal exposures in humans, scientists at the University of Bristol investigated the possible effects of ancestral prepubertal smoking on participants in 90s children, a study involving more than 14,000 people. In previous research from 2014, they found that if a father started smoking regularly before he hit puberty (before age 11), then his sons, but not his daughters, had more body fat than expected. In the recently published study, they extended this analysis to earlier generations using recently collected data on the grandfathers and great-grandfathers of study participants obtained through questionnaires. They found higher body fat in women whose paternal grandfathers or great-grandfathers started smoking before age 13 compared to those whose ancestors started smoking later in the childhood (13 to 16 years old). No effects were observed in male offspring. Further research will be needed to confirm these observations in other longitudinal studies and to extend the investigation to other transgenerational effects and ancestral exposures.

This research brings us two important results. First, that before puberty, a boy’s exposure to particular substances can have an effect on subsequent generations. Second, one of the reasons why children become obese may not have to do so much with their current diet and exercise, but with the way of life of their ancestors or the persistence of factors associated with the fil years.

If these associations are confirmed in other data sets, this will be one of the first human studies with appropriate data to begin examining these associations and to begin uncovering the origin of potentially important intergenerational relationships. It is with great thanks to the participants in the 90s Children Study that we are able to conduct such pioneering research. There’s a lot to explore.”

Professor Jean Golding, lead author of the report


Journal reference:

Golding, J. et al. (2022) Human transgenerational observations of regular smoking before puberty on fat mass in grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Scientific reports.

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