MedicalResearch.com Interview with:
Dr Gabrielle A. Lockett PhD
Postdoctoral Research Fellow
Asthma Genetics Laboratory,
Faculty of Medicine,
University of Southampton
MedicalResearch.com: What is the background for this study? What are the main findings?
Dr. Lockett: Season of birth has been known for decades to influence a huge range of traits, such as height and lifespan, as well as the risks of diseases such as allergy and schizophrenia. But until now the mechanism for season of birth effects was unknown. This study discovered that epigenetic marks (specifically DNA methylation) on the genome are associated with season of birth in 18-year-olds, suggesting that this could be a mechanism for such long-lasting birth season effects.
Epigenetic marks on the genome are known to both influence gene expression and to change in association with environmental exposures. This study is the first to identify DNA methylation associated with season of birth. This discovery therefore extends our knowledge of environmental exposures that are able to affect the epigenome.
The study also went on to further examine the genes identified to contain birth season-associated DNA methylation. Groups of these genes have functions related to development, cell death and the cell cycle, suggesting that season of birth alters the epigenetic regulation of these processes in particular. There was also suggestive evidence that season-associated DNA methylation could be on the functional pathway to allergic disease outcomes.
MedicalResearch.com: What should clinicians and patients take away from your report?
Dr. Lockett: People born in autumn and winter typically have a slightly increased risk of allergic diseases such as asthma. This study reported similar effects in the Isle of Wight cohort: here, people born in autumn were at increased risk of having eczema up to 18 years. However, we are not advising altering pregnancy timing to reduce the potential risk of allergy.
MedicalResearch.com: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?
Dr. Lockett: Despite showing that season of birth has an effect on DNA methylation, we still do not know which seasonal environmental exposures are the ultimate cause of these marks on the genome. Some suspected exposures that might contribute are seasonal fluctuations in sunlight exposure, the levels of pollen and other allergens, the age at which babies get their first respiratory viral infection, and maternal nutrition during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Future research should examine whether these seasonally varying exposures are associated with epigenetic changes. Research should also further examine the role of DNA methylation in allergic disease, especially as the environment seems to have a sizeable role in allergic disease risk.
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Gabrielle A. Lockett, Nelís Soto-Ramírez, Meredith A. Ray, Todd M. Everson, Cheng-Jian Xu, Veeresh K. Patil, William Terry, Akhilesh Kaushal, Faisal I. Rezwan, Susan L. Ewart, Ulrike Gehring, Dirkje S. Postma, Gerard H. Koppelman, S. Hasan Arshad, Hongmei Zhang, Wilfried Karmaus, John W. Holloway. Association of Season of Birth with DNA Methylation and Allergic Disease. Allergy, 2016; DOI:10.1111/all.12882
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Dr Gabrielle A. Lockett (2016). Epigenetic Mechanism Linked To Increased Allergies in Fall and Winter Births MedicalResearch.com