Michael Skinner’s biggest discovery began, as often happens in science stories like this one, with a brilliant failure. Back in 2005, when he was still a traditional developmental biologist and the accolades and attacks were still in the future, a distraught research fellow went to his office to apologize for taking an experiment one step too far. In his laboratories at Washington State University, she and Skinner had exposed pregnant rats to an endocrine disruptor—a chemical known to interfere with fetal development—in the hope of disturbing (and thereby gaining more insight into) the process by which an unborn fetus becomes either male or female. But the chemical they used, an agricultural fungicide called vinclozolin, had not affected sexual differentiation after all. The scientists did find lower sperm counts and decreased fertility when the male offspring reached adulthood, but that was no surprise. The study seemed like a bust.
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By accident, though, Skinner’s colleague had bred the grandchildren of those exposed rats, creating a fourth generation, or the great-grandchildren of the original subjects. “It’s OK,” Skinner told her. “You might as well analyze them.” If nothing else, he thought, the exercise might take her mind off her mistake. So she went ahead and studied the rats’ testes under a microscope.
What they found would not only change the direction of Skinner’s research but also challenge a bedrock principle of modern biology. And Skinner would become the forerunner of a new way of thinking about the possible long-term health consequences of exposure to environmental chemicals.
His discoveries touch on the basic question of how biological instructions are transmitted from one generation to the next. For half a century it has been common knowledge that the genetic material DNA controls this process; the “letters” in the DNA strand spell out messages that are passed from parent to offspring and so on. The messages come in the form of genes, the molecular equivalent of sentences, but they are not permanent. A change in a letter, a result of a random mutation, for example, can alter a gene’s message. The altered message can then be transmitted instead.
The strange thing about Skinner’s lab rats was that three generations after the pregnant mothers were exposed to the fungicide, the animals had abnormally low sperm counts—but not because of a change in their inherited DNA sequence. Puzzled, Skinner and his team repeated the experiments—once, twice, 15 times—and found the same sperm defects. So they bred more rats, and tested more chemicals, including substances that lead to diseases in the prostate, kidney, ovaries and immune system. Again and again, these diseases also showed up in the fourth- and fifth-generation offspring of mothers exposed to a chemical.
“In essence,” Skinner explains, “what your great-grandmother was exposed to could cause disease in you and your grandchildren.”
And, startlingly, whatever disease pathway a chemical was opening in the rats’ fur-covered bodies, it did not begin or end at a mutation in the genetic code. Skinner and his team found instead that as the toxins flooded in, they altered the pattern of simple molecules called methyl groups that latch onto DNA in the fetus’ germ-line cells, which would eventually become its eggs or sperm. Like burrs stuck to a knit sweater, these methyl molecules interfered with the functioning of the DNA and rode it down through future generations, opening each new one to the same diseases. These burrs, known to be involved in development, persisted for generations. The phenomenon was so unexpected that it has given rise to a new field, with Skinner an acknowledged leader, named transgenerational epigenetics, or the study of inherited changes that can’t be explained by traditional genetics.
A study by Skinner and colleagues published last year in the journal PLOS One has upped the ante considerably. The burrs were not just haphazardly attached, Skinner found. Instead, they fastened themselves in particular arrangements. When he bathed the insides of his pregnant rats in bug spray, jet fuel and BPA, the plastics component recently banned from baby bottles, each exposure left a distinct pattern of methyl group attachments that persisted in the great-grandchildren of exposed rats.
Not only is your great-grandmother’s environment affecting your health, Skinner concluded, but the chemicals she was exposed to may have left a fingerprint that scientists can actually trace.
The findings point to potentially new medical diagnostics. In the future, you may even go to your doctor’s office to have your methylation patterns screened. Exposure of lab rats to the chemical DDT can lead to obesity in subsequent generations—a link Skinner’s team reported in October. Hypothetically, a doctor might someday look at your methylation patterns early in life to determine your risk for obesity later. What’s more, toxicologists may need to reconsider how they study chemical exposures, especially those occurring during pregnancy. The work raises implications for monitoring the environment, for determining the safety of certain chemicals, perhaps even for establishing liability in legal cases involving health risks of chemical exposure.