Father’s genes affect how much care and attention a mother will give her child

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A father’s genes are not just a blueprint for growth, according to the latest research.

Paternal genes may also influence a woman’s mood during pregnancy and therefore how much attention she gives her baby.

According to experiments done with mice, these genes may indirectly affect the type of care the offspring receives both before and after they are born.

Researchers found this by investigating the hormonal signals given off from the mouse placenta during pregnancy and believe it may have relevance to humans. 

A father's genes are not just a blueprint for growth, according to the latest research using mice. Paternal genes may influence a woman's mood during pregnancy and therefore how well she cares for her baby (stock image)

A father’s genes are not just a blueprint for growth, according to the latest research using mice. Paternal genes may influence a woman’s mood during pregnancy and therefore how well she cares for her baby (stock image)

‘In this study, we showed experimentally in an animal model that maternal nurturing (motherly love) is programmed during pregnancy, in part, by signals from the placenta’, lead researcher Professor Rosalind John from Cardiff University’s School of Biosciences John told MailOnline.

‘This is highly speculative but our work suggests that genes from the dad may influence mum’s mood in pregnancy and how well she cares for her baby’, she said.  

The placenta transports nutrients to the growing fetus during pregnancy and gives off hormonal signals to establish and maintain a successful pregnancy.

As well as being involved in nurturing the baby throughout the pregnancy, the placenta signals are thought to be important for programming a mother’s behaviour, preparing them for their new role as a parent.

‘High quality maternal nurturing is important for infant well being and later life health’, Professor John said.

‘Previous research has shown that high quality maternal nurturing has a positive effect on the developing brain and can protect the offspring against stress whereas poor quality maternal nurturing is linked to poor behavioural outcomes for offspring.’

These hormones are produced by placental cells called spongiotrophoblasts.

These are held in check by a gene called Phlda2.

However, like most genes, the developing fetus has two copies of the Phlda2 gene.

But, unlike most genes, only one copy of Phlda2 is active.

This is due to a strange phenomenon called genomic imprinting whereby only the gene copy from one parent is switched on.

The placenta transports nutrients to the growing fetus during pregnancy and gives off hormonal signals to establish and maintain a successful pregnancy. Researchers carried out their work on mice (stock image)

The placenta transports nutrients to the growing fetus during pregnancy and gives off hormonal signals to establish and maintain a successful pregnancy. Researchers carried out their work on mice (stock image)

The placenta transports nutrients to the growing fetus during pregnancy and gives off hormonal signals to establish and maintain a successful pregnancy. Researchers carried out their work on mice (stock image)

In the case of Phlda2 it’s the father’s copy that is silent.

Using genetically altered mice, the researchers asked what happened if both copies of the fetus’ Phlda2 gene were active (a ‘materialised’ condition) or if both were silent (a ‘paternalised’ condition).

They found that mothers exposed to pups with the highest Phlda2 activity (and therefore presumably reduced placental hormones) nursed and groomed their pups less and instead focused on nest building.

Conversely, ‘paternalised’ mothers, exposed to the lowest Phlda2 dose (and therefore higher hormone levels), spent more time nurturing their pups, and less on housekeeping tasks.

The authors also showed corresponding changes in two regions of the mother’s brain – the hypothalamus and hippocampus.

Parenthood can be seen as a conflict between the interests of the two parents, with the father (and his genes) favouring maximum investment in the offspring, potentially at the expense of the mother’s best interests.

The results of this study suggest that the father, by causing his Phlda2 gene to be silent in the fetus, can even affect the nurturing behavior of the mother after his offspring have been born.

The authors speculate that this may have relevance to humans, as levels of Phlda2 gene activity vary between human pregnancies and inversely correlate with placental hormones.

Changes in the mother’s priorities during gestation and after birth are critically important for the wellbeing of the new baby and their lifelong mental health.

‘Our previous work has reported that a similar placental gene is linked to prenatal depression, and we are currently asking whether similar gene changes are associated with poor quality maternal care’, said Professor John.

‘More work must be done to further our understanding in how this works in humans.’

HOW DOES MATERNAL CARE SHAPE ADULT DNA?

A new report from the Salk Institute concludes that maternal care a person receives as a child shapes their DNA as an adult.

For the research scientists tested mice and looked specifically at their L1 genes.

They found that there is a link between neglectful mothers and a higher number of L1 copies within offspring.

Researchers discovered that the amount of copies of the L1 gene a person has could be linked to the maternal care they received as a child. Scientists used mice to test this theory

Researchers discovered that the amount of copies of the L1 gene a person has could be linked to the maternal care they received as a child. Scientists used mice to test this theory

Researchers discovered that the amount of copies of the L1 gene a person has could be linked to the maternal care they received as a child. Scientists used mice to test this theory

But they aren’t sure if there are consequences beyond this link.

The study said: ‘The researchers emphasized that at this point it’s unclear whether there are functional consequences of increased L1 elements.

‘Future work will examine whether the mice’s performance on cognitive tests, such as remembering which path in a maze leads to a treat, can be correlated with the number of L1 genes.’ 

 

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