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You Are What Your Parents Ate!

Neuherberg, March 14, 2016. Scientists at Helmholtz Zentrum München, in collaboration with researchers from Technical University of Munich and the German Center for Diabetes Research (DZD), have shown that diet-induced obesity and diabetes can be epigenetically* inherited by the offspring via both the oocytes and the sperm. The results were recently published in the journal ‘Nature Genetics’.

From left: Prof. Dr. Johannes Beckers, Prof. Dr. Martin Hrabě de Angelis, Dr. Peter Huypens / Source: Helmholtz Zentrum München

For its studies, the team of the Institute of Experimental Genetics (IEG) used mice that had become obese and had developed type 2 diabetes due to a high-fat diet. Their offspring were obtained solely through in vitro fertilization (IVF) from isolated oocytes and sperm, so that changes in the offspring could only be passed on via these cells. The offspring were carried and born by healthy surrogate mothers. This enabled the researchers to rule out additional factors such as the behavior of the parents and influences of the mother during pregnancy and lactation.

“The results showed that both oocytes and sperm passed on epigenetic information, which particularly in the female offspring led to severe obesity,” said Prof. Johannes Beckers, who directed the study. In the male offspring, by contrast, the blood glucose level was more affected than in the female siblings. The data also show that – like in humans – the maternal contribution to the change in metabolism in the offspring is greater than the paternal contribution

Possible explanation for rapid spread of diabetes worldwide

“This kind of epigenetic inheritance of a metabolic disorder due to an unhealthy diet could be another major cause for the dramatic global increase in the prevalence of diabetes since the 1960s,” said Prof. Martin Hrabě de Angelis, director of the IEG and initiator of the study. The increase in diabetic patients observed throughout the world can hardly be explained by mutations in the genes themselves (DNA) because the increase has been too fast. Since epigenetic inheritance – as opposed to genetic inheritance - is in principle reversible, new possibilities to influence the development of obesity and diabetes arise from these observations, according to the scientists.

In their theories on heredity and evolution, both Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Charles Darwin explicitly stated that characteristics and traits that parents acquire during their lifetime through interaction with the environment could be passed on to their offspring. It was not until the neo-Darwinist “Synthetic Theory of Evolution”, which combines the theories of natural selection by Darwin and of genetics by Gregor Mendel, that the inheritance of acquired traits was rejected. “From the perspective of basic research, this study is so important because it proves for the first time that an acquired metabolic disorder can be passed on epigenetically to the offspring via oocytes and sperm– similar to the ideas of Lamarck and Darwin,” said Professor Johannes Beckers.

Further informationen


*Epigenetics: In contrast to genetics, the term epigenetics refers to the inheritance of traits that are not determined in the primary sequence of the DNA (the genes). So far, RNA transcripts and chemical modifications of the chromatin (e.g. on the DNA or the histones) have been considered as carriers of this epigenetic information.

Original publication:
Huypens, P. et al. (2016). Epigenetic germline inheritance of diet induced obesity and insulin resistance, Nature Genetics, DOI: 10.1038/ng.3527
Link zur Publikation

As Helmholtz Zentrum München pursues the goal of developing personalized medical approaches for the prevention and therapy of major common diseases such as diabetes mellitus and lung diseases. To achieve this, it investigates the interaction of genetics, environmental factors and lifestyle. The Helmholtz Zentrum München has about 2,300 staff members and is headquartered in Neuherberg in the north of Munich. Helmholtz Zentrum München is a member of the Helmholtz Association, a community of 18 scientific-technical and medical-biological research centers with a total of about 37,000 staff members.

 Technische Universität München (TUM)is one of Europe’s leading research universities, with more than 500 professors, around 10,000 academic and non-academic staff, and 39,000 students. Its focus areas are the engineering sciences, natural sciences, life sciences and medicine, reinforced by schools of management and education. TUM acts as an entrepreneurial university that promotes talents and creates value for society. In that it profits from having strong partners in science and industry. It is represented worldwide with a campus in Singapore as well as offices in Beijing, Brussels, Cairo, Mumbai, San Francisco, and São Paulo. Nobel Prize winners and inventors such as Rudolf Diesel, Carl von Linde, and Rudolf Mößbauer have done research at TUM. In 2006 and 2012 it won recognition as a German "Excellence University." In international rankings, TUM regularly places among the best universities in Germany.

The research objective of the Institute of Experimental Genetics (IEG) is to elucidate the causes and pathogenesis of human diseases. Due to its prominent role in interdisciplinary and international consortia, the IEG is a global leader in the systemic study of mouse models for human diseases and the elucidation of involved genes. The main focus is on metabolic diseases such as diabetes. The IEG is part of the Helmholtz Diabetes Center (HDC). 

The German Center for Diabetes Research (DZD) is a national association that brings together experts in the field of diabetes research and combines basic research, translational research, epidemiology and clinical applications. The aim is to develop novel strategies for personalized prevention and treatment of diabetes. Members are Helmholtz Zentrum München – German Research Center for Environmental Health, the German Diabetes Center in Düsseldorf, the German Institute of Human Nutrition in Potsdam-Rehbrücke, the Paul Langerhans Institute Dresden of the Helmholtz Zentrum München at the University Medical Center Carl Gustav Carus of the TU Dresden and the Institute for Diabetes Research and Metabolic Diseases of the Helmholtz Zentrum München at the Eberhard-Karls-University of Tuebingen together with associated partners at the Universities in Heidelberg, Cologne, Leipzig, Lübeck and Munich.