Exposure to Environmental Contaminants Today Can Influence Behavior Generations Later

May 22, 2012

AUSTIN, Texas — Exposure to chemicals has the ability to influence behavior of offspring several generations after the initial exposure, according to a new study published by researchers at The University of Texas at Austin and Washington State University.

The findings, published in the latest Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, put a new twist on the notions of nature and nurture, with broad implications for how certain behavioral tendencies, including responses to stress, might be inherited.

The researchers — David Crews at The University of Texas at Austin, Michael Skinner at Washington State and colleagues — exposed gestating female rats to vinclozolin, a popular fruit and vegetable fungicide. The fungicide does not directly alter DNA but does causes changes in elements that regulate genes. This “epigenetic change” can be passed down to subsequent generations.

The researchers put the rats’ third generation of offspring through a variety of behavioral tests and found they were more anxious, more sensitive to stress, and had greater activity in stress-related regions of the brain than descendants of unexposed rats.

“We are now in the third human generation since the start of the chemical revolution, since humans have been exposed to these kinds of chemicals,” says Crews, Ashbel Smith Professor in the Section of Integrative Biology. “This is the animal model of that.”

“The ancestral exposure of your great-grandmother alters your brain development to then respond to stress differently,” says Skinner, professor in the School of Biological Sciences. “We did not know a stress response could be programmed by your ancestors’ environmental exposures.”

The researchers had already shown that exposure to vinclozolin can affect mate choice in later generations. The new research deepens their study of the epigenetics of the brain and behavior, dealing for the first time with real-life challenges such as stress. It also takes a rare systems biology approach, looking at the brain from the molecular level to the physiological level to behavior.

“We did not know a stress response could be reprogrammed by your ancestors’ environmental exposures,” says Skinner, who focused on the epigenetic transgenerational inheritance and genomics aspects of the paper. “So how well you socialize or how your anxiety levels respond to stress may be as much your ancestral epigenetic inheritance as your individual early life events.”

Crews says that well-documented increases in mental disorders may be attributable to the kind of “two-hit” exposure that the experiment is modeling.

“There is no doubt that we have been seeing real increases in mental disorders like autism and bipolar disorder,” says Crews, who focused on the neuroscience, behavior and stress aspects of the paper. “It’s more than just a change in diagnostics. The question is: Why? Is it because we are living in a more frantic world, or because we are living in a more frantic world and are responding to that in a different way because we, or our ancestors, have been exposed to environmental contaminants. I favor the latter.”

The researchers also saw intriguing differences in weight gain, opening the door to further research on obesity. The rats affected by their ancestors’ exposure to vinclozolin were significantly overweight compared with unexposed rats.

For more information, contact: Daniel Oppenheimer, Hogg Foundation, 512 745 3353; David Crews, professor, The University of Texas at Austin, 512 471-1804

6 Comments to "Exposure to Environmental Contaminants Today Can Influence Behavior Generations Later"

1.  Lauren said on May 22, 2012

Cool article along the lines of what we were talking about with stress and how it can be passed on.

2.  Chuck said on May 29, 2012

This brings into light the same concept of vaccinations/immunizations effecting the "gene pool" of our future generations. Could this play into popular believe that not just these fungicides affecting our future generations but all the toxins we are pumping into our veins, whether that be intravenous or digestive?

3.  Scott L. French said on May 30, 2012

Terrific groundbreaking research; this provides a sense of relief.

4.  Margaret Cotrofeld said on June 1, 2012

I find this interesting in light of rampant use (need?) in the US for anti-depressant (often anti-anxiety) medications: what is our genetic heritage in this regard, and is this tendency perhaps more the result of biochemical need than societal lack.

5.  Rae N. said on June 1, 2012

How about exposure to environmental contaminants (e.g. vaccine adjuvants like mercury & aluminum) in the here and now influencing the increase in autism in the here and now? Did the researchers ever think of that?

6.  LONGTIMELONGHORN said on June 5, 2012

I AGEE WITH THIS INFORMATION!

BUT ALSO WE HAVE TO LOOK AT THE CURRENT EXPOSURES AND INJURIES OF EMPLOYEES ARE SUFFERING FROM AND WHO ARE AND WERE CURRENTLY EXPOSED OFTEN TO HARMFUL ENVIROMENT CHEMICALS AND WORK RELATED INJURIES.
MANY TIME MANGERS / HUMAN RESOURCES ALLOWS IT TO BE WRITTEN INTO THEIR JOB DESCRIPTIONS. LACK OF TRAINING, NOTIFICATION AND WITHOUT CLEARLY INFORMING OR POSTING INFORMATION FOR EMPLOYEES WHEN THEY WILL BE EXPOSED.

THIS IS A GRAVE SAFETY OVERSIGHT IN THE PREVENTION OF EMPLOYEES HEALTH AND SAFETY CONCERNS AND INJURES AND EXPOSURES. UT NEEDS TO ADDRESS THE LACK OF TIMELY PROACTIVE MEASURES AND NOTIFICATION FOR ALL UT EMPLOYEES AND STUDENTS WE SERVE.

MORE SHOULD AND NEEDS TO BE DONE INSTEAD DEALING WITH INCIDENTS AS THEY OCCURS.

WORKMAN COMP DOES NOT ALWAYS SUPPORT OR PROTECT AND SERVE INJURED EMPLOYEES. SOME OF THEIR GUIDELINE THAT ARE CREATED DENY EMPLOYEES CLAIMS WHEN THEY WERE INJURED OR EXPOSED WHILE AT WORK.

JUST CHECK THE RECORDS FOR HOW MANY CLAIMS WERE DENIED, IN THE PAST 10 YEAR AND COMPARE AND LOOK AT THE CHANGES OF WORKER'S COMP POLICIES.

MAKES ONE QUESTION IS THERE SOME TYPE OF BENEFITS FOR LESS EMPLOYEES WC CLAIMS TO BE FILED???

THEY WOULD RATHER INJURED EMPLOYEES TAKE THEIR SICK TIME THAT THEY HAVE EARNED OR MAKE THE USE UP ALL THEIR SICK TIME AND PAY THEM 1/3 LESS OF THEIR SALARIES AND WITH THE POSSIBILITY OF THEIR INSURANCE BEING CUT OFF. THE FACTS WILL SPEAK LOUDLY AND CLEARLY.

JUST A FEW YEARS AGO ONLY CERTAIN DEPTS INJURED EMPLOYEES COULD RECIEVE MEDICAL SERVICES OR ATTENTION ON UT CAMPUS.

OHP WAS IN RECENT YEARS SET UP TO SERVE ALL INJURES OR EXPOSED EMPLOYEES.

JUST FOOD FOR THOUGHT........... EMPLOYEES UNION REPS NEED TO MEET AND ADDRESS THESE ISSUES ON BEHALF OF ALL UT EMPLOYEES.

SEARCH AND REQUEST BETTER REPRESENTAION AND BENIFITS OF EMPLOYEES WC , ONE BY CHASING THE THE FACTS AND SEE WHAT YOU FIND.