What we eat affects our genes

New research has shown that molecular changes to our genes, known as epigenetic marks, are driven mainly by ageing but are also affected by what we eat.

The study in human volunteers showed that whilst age had the biggest effects on these molecular changes, selenium and vitamin D status reduced the accumulation of epigenetic changes, and high blood folate and obesity increased them. These findings support the idea that healthy ageing is affected by what we eat.

Professor John Mathers and colleagues from Newcastle University, working with researchers from the Institute of Food Research, led by Dr Nigel Belshaw, examined the cells lining the gut wall from volunteers attending colonoscopy clinic.

The study volunteers were free from cancer or inflammatory bowel disease and consumed their usual diet without any supplements.

The researchers looked for specific epigenetic modifications of the volunteers' genes that have been associated with the earliest signs of the onset of bowel cancer, an age-related disease.

These epigenetic marks, known as DNA methylation, do not alter the genetic code but affect whether the genes are turned on or off. These methylation marks are transmitted when cells divide, and some have been associated with the development of cancer.