The Mother of All FDA Fails

The FDA has never required drug safety assessment for fetal germline impact, even though FDA staff understand that gestational exposures can adversely affect developing germ cells. We must end this catastrophic omission, while also granting all Americans access to their own prenatal medical records.

Research on germline exposures

Research from the past ten years suggests that prenatal exposures to synthetic chemicals, including pharmaceutical drugs and endocrine disruptors, can adversely impact the fetal germline.  Below is a selection of papers and commentaries relating to the topic, with abstracts included.  For more information about the emerging science of autism and environmental epigenetics, please visit the Autism Speaks - UC Davis MIND Institute website,

Epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of altered stress responses (Crews et al 2012)

Ancestral environmental exposures have previously been shown to promote epigenetic transgenerational inheritance and influence all aspects of an individual’s life history. In addition, proximate life events such as chronic stress have documented effects on the development of physiological, neural, and behavioral phenotypes in adulthood. We used a systems biology approach to investigate in male rats the interaction of the ancestral modifications carried transgenerationally in the germ line and the proximate modifications involving chronic restraint stress during adolescence. We find that a single exposure to a common-use fungicide (vinclozolin) three generations removed alters the physiology, behavior, metabolic activity, and transcriptome in discrete brain nuclei in descendant males, causing them to respond differently to chronic restraint stress. This alteration of baseline brain development promotes a change in neural genomic activity that correlates with changes in physiology and behavior, revealing the interaction of genetics, environment, and epigenetic transgenerational inheritance in the shaping of the adult phenotype. This is an important demonstration in an animal that ancestral exposure to an environmental compound modifies how descendants of these progenitor individuals perceive and respond to a stress challenge experienced during their own life history.

Epigenetics, evolution, endocrine disruptors, health and disease  (Crews et al 2006)

Endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) in the environment have been linked to human health and disease. This is particularly evident in compounds that mimic the effects of estrogens. Exposure to EDCs early in life can increase risk levels of compromised physical and mental health. Epigenetic mechanisms have been implicated in this process. Transgenerational consequences of EDC exposure is also discussed in both a proximate (mechanism) and ultimate (evolution) context as well as recent work suggesting how such transmission might become incorporated into the genome and subject to selection. We suggest a perspective for exploring and ultimately coming to understand diseases that may have environmental or endocrine origins.

The effects of different endocrine disruptors defining compound specific alterations of gene expression profiles in the developing testis  (Del Mazo et al 2012)

Environmental contaminants considered endocrine disruptors have been shown to affect testis development and function but the mechanisms of action are not clear. We now have analyzed the effects on the transcriptome in testes of mice exposed to mono-(2-ethylhexyl)-phthalate (9.2; 46.3 or 92.7 mg/kg/d), zearalenone (1.3; 3.9 or 6.6 mg/kg/d), lindane (16.6; 32.2 or 64.4 mg/kg/d), bisphenol-A (0.16; 16 or 64 mg/kg/d) or 17β-estradiol (0.006; 0.012 or 0.048 mg/kg/d). The compounds were orally administered in the drinking water during distinct developmental periods: (A) mothers were exposed only during the two weeks before mating; (B) the exposure was continued during pregnancy until birth or (C) exposure was continued for a further four weeks after birth. Testes were studied at four weeks of age. Mono-(2-ethylhexyl)-phthalate and zearalenone, both produced specific alterations of gene signatures. Interestingly, this was irrespective of the concentration of the toxicant or the developmental period during which exposure occurred.

Environment-sensitive epigenetics and the heritability of complex diseases   (Furrow et al 2011)

Genome-wide association studies have thus far failed to explain the observed heritability of complex human diseases. This is referred to as the “missing heritability” problem. However, these analyses have usually neglected to consider a role for epigenetic variation, which has been associated with many human diseases. We extend models of epigenetic inheritance to investigate whether environment-sensitive epigenetic modifications of DNA might explain observed patterns of familial aggregation. We find that variation in epigenetic state and environmental state can result in highly heritable phenotypes through a combination of epigenetic and environmental inheritance. These two inheritance processes together can produce familial covariances significantly higher than those predicted by models of purely epigenetic inheritance and similar to those expected from genetic effects. The results suggest that epigenetic variation, inherited both directly and through shared environmental effects, may make a key contribution to the missing heritability.

Transgenerational neuroendocrine disruption of reproduction (Walker and Gore 2011)

Exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) is associated with dysfunctions of metabolism, energy balance, thyroid function and reproduction, and an increased risk of endocrine cancers. These multifactorial disorders can be 'programmed' through molecular epigenetic changes induced by exposure to EDCs early in life, the expression of which may not manifest until adulthood. In some cases, EDCs have detrimental effects on subsequent generations, which indicates that traits for disease predisposition may be passed to future generations by nongenomic inheritance. This Review discusses current understanding of the epigenetic mechanisms that underlie sexual differentiation of reproductive neuroendocrine systems in mammals and summarizes the literature on transgenerational epigenetic effects of representative EDCs: vinclozolin, diethylstilbesterol, bisphenol A and polychlorinated biphenyls. The article differentiates between context-dependent epigenetic transgenerational changes—namely, those that require environmental exposure, either via the EDC itself or through behavioral or physiological differences in parents—and germline-dependent epigenetic mechanisms. These processes, albeit discrete, are not mutually exclusive and can involve similar molecular mechanisms including DNA methylation and histone modifications and may predispose exposed individuals to transgenerational disruption of reproductive processes. New insights stress the crucial need to develop a clear understanding of how EDCs may program the epigenome of exposed individuals and their descendants.

The expanding genomic landscape of autism: discovering the ‘forest’ beyond the ‘trees' (Hu 2013)

Autism spectrum disorders are neurodevelopmental disorders characterized by significant deficits in reciprocal social interactions, impaired communication and restricted, repetitive behaviors. As autism spectrum disorders are among the most heritable of neuropsychiatric disorders, much of autism research has focused on the search for genetic variants in protein-coding genes (i.e., the ‘trees’). However, no single gene can account for more than 1% of the cases of autism spectrum disorders. Yet, genome-wide association studies have often identified statistically significant associations of genetic variations in regions of DNA that do not code for proteins (i.e., intergenic regions). There is increasing evidence that such noncoding regions are actively transcribed and may participate in the regulation of genes, including genes on different chromosomes. This article summarizes evidence that suggests that the research spotlight needs to be expanded to encompass far-reaching gene-regulatory mechanisms that include a variety of epigenetic modifications, as well as noncoding RNA (i.e., the ‘forest’). Given that noncoding RNA represents over 90% of the transcripts in most cells, we may be observing just the ‘tip of the iceberg’ or the ‘edge of the forest’ in the genomic landscape of autism.

Bisphenol A alters early oogenesis and follicle formation in the fetal ovary of the rhesus monkey (Hunt et al 2012)

Widespread use of the endocrine disrupting chemical bisphenol A (BPA) in consumer products has resulted in nearly continuous human exposure. In rodents, low-dose exposures have been reported to adversely affect two distinct stages of oogenesis in the developing ovary: the events of prophase at the onset of meiosis in the fetal ovary and the formation of follicles in the perinatal ovary. Because these effects could influence the reproductive longevity and success of the exposed individual, we conducted studies in the rhesus monkey to determine whether BPA induces similar disturbances in the developing primate ovary. The routes and levels of human exposure are unclear; hence, two different exposure protocols were used: single daily oral doses and continuous exposure via subdermal implant. Our analyses of second trimester fetuses exposed at the time of meiotic onset suggest that, as in mice, BPA induces subtle disturbances in the prophase events that set the stage for chromosome segregation at the first meiotic division. Our analyses of third-trimester fetuses exposed to single daily oral doses during the time of follicle formation revealed an increase in multioocyte follicles analogous to that reported in rodents. However, two unique phenotypes were evident in continuously exposed animals: persistent unenclosed oocytes in the medullary region and small, nongrowing oocytes in secondary and antral follicles. Because effects on both stages of oogenesis were elicited using doses that yield circulating levels of BPA analogous to those reported in humans, these findings raise concerns for human reproductive health.

Epigenetic inheritance and plasticity: The responsive germline (Jablonka 2012)

Developmental plasticity, the capacity of a single genotype to give rise to different phenotypes, affects evolutionary dynamics by influencing the rate and direction of phenotypic change. It is based on regulatory changes in gene expression and gene products, which are partially controlled by epigenetic mechanisms. Plasticity involves not just epigenetic changes in somatic cells and tissues; it can also involve changes in germline cells. Germline epigenetic plasticity increases evolvability, the capacity to generate heritable, selectable, phenotypic variations, including variations that lead to novel functions. I discuss studies that show that some complex adaptive responses to new challenges are mediated by germline epigenetic processes, which can be transmitted over variable number of generations, and argue that the heritable variations that are generated epigenetically have an impact on both small-scale and large-scale aspects of evolution. First, I review some recent ecological studies and models that show that germline (gametic) epigenetic inheritance can lead to cumulative micro-evolutionary changes that are rapid and semi-directional. I suggest that “priming” and “epigenetic learning” may be of special importance in generating heritable, fine-tuned adaptive responses in populations. Second, I consider work showing how genomic and environmental stresses can also lead to epigenome repatterning, and produce changes that are saltational.

Epigenetics in autism and other neurodevelopmental diseases (Kubota et al 2012)

Autism was previously thought to be caused by environmental factors. However, genetic factors are now considered to be more contributory to the pathogenesis of autism, based on the recent findings of mutations in the genes which encode synaptic molecules associated with the communication between neurons. Epigenetic is a mechanism that controls gene expression without changing DNA sequence but by changing chromosomal histone modifications and its abnormality is associated with several neurodevelopmental diseases. Since epigenetic modifications are known to be affected by environmental factors such as nutrition, drugs and mental stress, autistic diseases are not only caused by congenital genetic defects, but may also be caused by environmental factors via epigenetic mechanism. In this chapter, we introduce autistic diseases caused by epigenetic failures and discuss epigenetic changes by environmental factors and discuss new treatments for neurodevelopmental diseases based on the recent epigenetic findings.
Epigenetic understanding of gene-environment interactions in psychiatric disorders: a new concept of clinical genetics (Kubota et al 2012)

Epigenetics is a mechanism that regulates gene expression independently of the underlying DNA sequence, relying instead on the chemical modification of DNA and histone proteins. Although environmental and genetic factors were thought to be independently associated with disorders, several recent lines of evidence suggest that epigenetics bridges these two factors. Epigenetic gene regulation is essential for normal development, thus defects in epigenetics cause various rare congenital diseases. Because epigenetics is a reversible system that can be affected by various environmental factors, such as drugs, nutrition, and mental stress, the epigenetic disorders also include common diseases induced by environmental factors. In this review, we discuss the nature of epigenetic disorders, particularly psychiatric disorders, on the basis of recent findings: 1) susceptibility of the conditions to environmental factors, 2) treatment by taking advantage of their reversible nature, and 3) transgenerational inheritance of epigenetic changes, that is, acquired adaptive epigenetic changes that are passed on to offspring. These recently discovered aspects of epigenetics provide a new concept of clinical genetics. 

Genes and environment are two-way street in autism risk (LaSalle 2012)

"Understanding and treating autism would certainly be much simpler if there were only a single or even a handful of underlying culprits. Instead, autism is clearly falling into the category of complex human genetic disorders that include cancer, cardiovascular disease and autoimmunity. Genes and environmental factors are both involved, but using a genetic or other molecular test to predict an individual’s risk of autism remains frustratingly out of reach.
This is in large part because gene-environment calculations involve more than simple math. It may be tempting to consider genes and the environment as separate paths, but I’d like to point out that the important interactions occur on what is more of a two-way street.
In one direction, genetics can influence environmental susceptibility. In the opposite direction, environmental factors can influence the expression of genes via epigenetic mechanisms, which leave unaltered the underlying DNA sequence. The environment can also damage our DNA through mutations or by triggering genomic instability."

A genomic point-of-view on environmental factors influencing the human brain methylome (LaSalle 2011)

The etiologic paradigm of complex human disorders such as autism is that genetic and environmental risk factors are independent and additive, but the interactive effects at the epigenetic interface are largely ignored. Genomic technologies have radically changed perspective on the human genome and how the epigenetic interface may impact complex human disorders. Here, I review recent genomic, environmental, and epigenetic findings that suggest a new paradigm of “integrative genomics” in which genetic variation in genomic size may be impacted by dietary and environmental factors that influence the genomic saturation of DNA methylation. Human genomes are highly repetitive, but the interface of large-scale genomic differences with environmental factors that alter the DNA methylome such as dietary folate is under-explored. In addition to obvious direct effects of some environmental toxins on the genome by causing chromosomal breaks, non-mutagenic toxin exposures correlate with DNA hypomethylation that can lead to rearrangements between repeats or increased retrotransposition. Since human neurodevelopment appears to be particularly sensitive to alterations in epigenetic pathways, a further focus will be on how developing neurons may be particularly impacted by even subtle alterations to DNA methylation and proposing new directions towards understanding the quixotic etiology of autism by integrative genomic approaches. 

Transgenerational epigenetic effects on brain functions (Mansuy et al 2012)

Psychiatric diseases are multifaceted disorders with complex etiology, recognized to have strong heritable components. Despite intense research efforts, genetic loci that substantially account for disease heritability have not yet been identified. Over the last several years, epigenetic processes have emerged as important factors for many brain diseases, and the discovery of epigenetic processes in germ cells has raised the possibility that they may contribute to disease heritability and disease risk. This review examines epigenetic mechanisms in complex diseases and summarizes the most illustrative examples of transgenerational epigenetic inheritance in mammals and their relevance for brain function. Environmental factors that can affect molecular processes and behavior in exposed individuals and their offspring, and their potential epigenetic underpinnings, are described. Possible routes and mechanisms of transgenerational transmission are proposed, and the major questions and challenges raised by this emerging field of research are considered.

Epigenetic Inheritance of Disease and Disease Risk  (Bohacek and Mansuy 2012)

Epigenetic marks in an organism can be altered by environmental factors throughout life. Although changes in the epigenetic code can be positive, some are associated with severe diseases, in particular, cancer and neuropsychiatric disorders. Recent evidence has indicated that certain epigenetic marks can be inherited, and reshape developmental and cellular features over generations. This review examines the challenging possibility that epigenetic changes induced by environmental factors can contribute to some of the inheritance of disease and disease risk. This concept has immense implications for the understanding of biological functions and disease etiology, and provides potential novel strategies for diagnosis and treatment. Examples of epigenetic inheritance relevant to human disease, such as the detrimental effects of traumatic stress or drug/toxic exposure on brain functions, are reviewed. Different possible routes of transmission of epigenetic information involving the germline or germline-independent transfer are discussed, and different mechanisms for the maintenance and transmission of epigenetic information like chromatin remodeling and small noncoding RNAs are considered. Future research directions and remaining major challenges in this field are also outlined. Finally, the adaptive value of epigenetic inheritance, and the cost and benefit of allowing acquired epigenetic marks to persist across generations is critically evaluated.

Gestational Exposure to Bisphenol A Produces Transgenerational Changes in Behaviors and Gene Expression (Rissman et al 2012)

Bisphenol A (BPA) is a plasticizer and an endocrine-disrupting chemical. It is present in a variety of products used daily including food containers, paper, and dental sealants and is now widely detected in human urine and blood. Exposure to BPA during development may affect brain organization and behavior, perhaps as a consequence of its actions as a steroid hormone agonist/antagonist and/or an epigenetic modifier. Here we show that BPA produces transgenerational alterations in genes and behavior. Female mice received phytoestrogen-free chow with or without BPA before mating and throughout gestation. Plasma levels of BPA in supplemented dams were in a range similar to those measured in humans. Juveniles in the first generation exposed to BPA in utero displayed fewer social interactions as compared with control mice, whereas in later generations (F2 and F4), the effect of BPA was to increase these social interactions. Brains from embryos (embryonic d 18.5) exposed to BPA had lower gene transcript levels for several estrogen receptors, oxytocin, and vasopressin as compared with controls; decreased vasopressin mRNA persisted into the F4 generation, at which time oxytocin was also reduced but only in males. Thus, exposure to a low dose of BPA, only during gestation, has immediate and long-lasting, transgenerational effects on mRNA in brain and social behaviors. Heritable effects of an endocrine-disrupting chemical have implications for complex neurological diseases and highlight the importance of considering gene-environment interactions in the etiology of complex disease. 

Epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of somatic transcriptomes and epigenetic control regions (Skinner et al 2012)

Combined observations demonstrate that all tissues derived from the epigenetically altered germ line develop transgenerational transcriptomes unique to the tissue, but common epigenetic control regions in the genome may coordinately regulate these tissue-specific transcriptomes. This systems biology approach provides insight into the molecular mechanisms involved in the epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of a variety of adult onset disease phenotypes.

Dioxin (TCDD) induces epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of adult onset disease and sperm epimutations, (Manikkam et al 2012)

Environmental compounds can promote epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of adult-onset disease in subsequent generations following ancestral exposure during fetal gonadal sex determination. The current study examined the ability of dioxin (2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo[p]dioxin, TCDD) to promote epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of disease and DNA methylation epimutations in sperm. Gestating F0 generation females were exposed to dioxin during fetal day 8 to 14 and adult-onset disease was evaluated in F1 and F3 generation rats. The incidences of total disease and multiple disease increased in F1 and F3 generations. Prostate disease, ovarian primordial follicle loss and polycystic ovary disease were increased in F1 generation dioxin lineage. Kidney disease in males, pubertal abnormalities in females, ovarian primordial follicle loss and polycystic ovary disease were increased in F3 generation dioxin lineage animals. Analysis of the F3 generation sperm epigenome identified 50 differentially DNA methylated regions (DMR) in gene promoters. These DMR provide potential epigenetic biomarkers for transgenerational disease and ancestral environmental exposures. Observations demonstrate dioxin exposure of a gestating female promotes epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of adult onset disease and sperm epimutations.

Transgenerational epigenetic programming of the brain transcriptome and anxiety behavior (Skinner et al 2008)

Embryonic exposure to the endocrine disruptor vinclozolin during gonadal sex determination promotes an epigenetic reprogramming of the male germ-line that is associated with transgenerational adult onset disease states. Further analysis of this transgenerational phenotype on the brain demonstrated reproducible changes in the brain transcriptome three generations (F3) removed from the exposure. The transgenerational alterations in the male and female brain transcriptomes were distinct. In the males, the expression of 92 genes in the hippocampus and 276 genes in the amygdala were transgenerationally altered. In the females, the expression of 1,301 genes in the hippocampus and 172 genes in the amygdala were transgenerationally altered. Analysis of specific gene sets demonstrated that several brain signaling pathways were influenced including those involved in axon guidance and long-term potentiation. An investigation of behavior demonstrated that the vinclozolin F3 generation males had a decrease in anxiety-like behavior, while the females had an increase in anxiety-like behavior. These observations demonstrate that an embryonic exposure to an environmental compound appears to promote a reprogramming of brain development that correlates with transgenerational sex-specific alterations in the brain transcriptomes and behavior. Observations are discussed in regards to environmental and transgenerational influences on the etiology of brain disease.


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