In the recent paper in Nature (2014, vol 507, p. 22-24), Virginia Hughes reports the experiments carried out by Dr Dias and Dr Ressler from the University of Atlanta in recent years. They have studied the involvement in inheritance imprints in mice as a result of a fear-based reaction associated to acetophenone. As a result, they found a larger than normal expression of M71 glomeruli receptors in their offspring’s noses. These receptors are encoded by a single gene, known as Olfr151.
This elegant, but still inconclusive cause-effect mechanism approach, brings a possible explanation to a controversial observation back to the 19th century when French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamark pointed out the pass of acquired traits to future generations. Since then, scientists have observed this phenomenon in plants, animals and even humans.
Although some scientists are still sceptical about the transmitance method, nobody denies the phenomenon. Finding an explanation to this complex problem would involve a deeper study on reproductive biology and to study both mother and father lines over few generations.
The strong suggestion that this heriditary transmission of environmental factors is due to epigenetics, a concept introduced in the 2000’s, where there are some changes in the way that DNA is packed and expressed without altering its sequence, is one of the strong lines of thought, where chemical tags (methylation) on DNA can turn genes on and off.
But even if epigenetics is directly involved in the inheritance, through marks on the material contained in the sperm, the first question to be addressed would be to understand how the effects of environmental/ health legacy get embedded into the animal’s germ cells.
Epigenetics is still unable to explain how this observed phenomenon gets passed down through multiple generations, surviving several rounds of genetic re-programing. Other suggested agents might involve histones (proteins which has been observed that they can be passed down through generations) or short RNA molecules which role would be to latch on DNA and affect further into gene expression.
Scientists are optimistic about finding a cause-effect relationship in the years to come for a phenomenon which has proved elusive for researchers in the past hundred years.