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Not your child's biological parent? You may still have an influence on their genes

3 August 2009
By Olivia Montuschi
Manager of the Donor Conception Network (DC Network)
Appeared in BioNews 519
I am not a scientist. My life-long field of interest has always been human development and relationships. But, as a parent of two donor-conceived young adults and Manager of the Donor Conception Network (DC Network), I also have more than a passing curiosity about the extent of the influence of genetic inheritance on an individual's way of being in the world. Having met adult half-siblings of one of the earliest sperm donors I have been shocked by the likeness of intelligence and speech patterns as well as facial features. Parents of donor-conceived children mostly do not spend a lot of time thinking about what their child might have inherited from their donor. Whilst not attempting to deny the role of genetics, DC Network members prefer to think about how much they can influence their child's life through the love and security they provide and the values that they will pass on. My own training and background convinces me that the provision of a loving and secure environment does have a profound effect, but what if the previously thought of ‘non-genetic' parent could have a genetic influence as well…an epigenetic one?

The term epigenetics first came to my attention about 18 months ago. Browsing a well known infertility web forum I came across a post which told of a branch of science that was proving that recipients of donated eggs could have an influence on how genes were ‘turned on' in the child they were carrying. It referred to an example from the equine world:

In horse breeding for example, it's not uncommon to implant a pony embryo into the womb of a horse. The foals that result are different from normal ponies. They're bigger. These animals' genotype – their genes – are the same as a pony's, but their phenotype – what their genes actually look like in the living animal – is different. The implication of epigenetics is that the child inherits characteristics from the woman who carries the child even if the original DNA comes from a donor egg. In other words the birth mother influences what the child is like at a genetic level - it IS her child.'

A flurry of postings followed which immediately latched on to the meaning that the posters desperately wanted it to have. This would not be a child that was not genetically connected to them at all… in fact, perhaps the donor could be air-brushed out of the picture because if genes were altered by the environment of the womb and the mothers were able to contribute to a baby's wellbeing through good diet etc, then maybe the donor didn't need to be acknowledged at all.

Whilst DC Network actively encourages would-be parents, those pregnant or already with donor-conceived children to own their status and authority as true parents, we are also clear that early honesty about beginnings is fundamental to healthy family relationships. Denial of the role of the donor is not helpful to child or parent, but, if epigenetics was able to show that a recipient of donated eggs exerts an influence on the way genes are expressed or silenced, what would this mean? At the very least it could be comforting information for women and their partners who discover that the only way they are likely to be able to have a child is with the help of an egg donor.

Sandy Starr of the Progress Educational Trust wrote to me when I first mentioned the way I had noticed emerging epigenetic information being used, saying that ‘the fallacy most commonly associated with classical genetics has been ‘genetic determinism', where more is ascribed to genes that they can truthfully account for. We may see a new fallacy of ‘epigenetic determinism', where epigenetics is used in the same way – for instance to overstate the influence of the recipient mother and impugn the contribution of the donor. Or conversely, we could see a fallacy of ‘epigenetic relativism' where the complexity of epigenetics is used as a pretext to dismiss all claims of genetic influence, which would allow people to dismiss the genetic contribution of the donor as effectively unknowable and therefore irrelevant'.

The challenge for Progress Educational Trust - and I am delighted that their autumn conference is focusing on this topic - is to come to a settled position about what the term ‘epigenetics' really means, and then to make sure that the implications for each area that this science applies to (cancer, mental health, reproductive medicine etc) are carefully unravelled and explained for non-scientists like me and disseminated in ways and in places that can genuinely inform and guide those for whom it may have great meaning.

10 January 2011 - by Dr Sophie Pryor 
A father's diet can affect the way his offspring's genes function, according to the authors of a study on mice. Scientists found information about the diet of male mice can be passed to their offspring, causing changes to the 'switching on and off' of genes involved in processes like metabolism. The research could one day help identify people at higher risk of illnesses like diabetes and heart disease...
7 December 2009 - by Dr Aarathi Prasad 
Session 3 of the Progress Educational Trust's annual conference (PET), held on Wednesday 18 November 2009 at Clifford Chance, was chaired by Professor Dian Donnai,Professor of Medical Genetics at the University of Manchester, and started with a talk by Karen Temple, Professor of Medical Genetics and Honorary Consultant in Clinical Genetics at the University of Southampton and Wessex Clinical Genetics Service. Professor Temple gave an intriguing talk on the influence of parent...
2 August 2009 - by Professor Marcus Pembrey 
Epigenetics is about the when and where of gene activity and about shaping development in response to early experience - from internal cues in the growing embryo to the prevailing physical and the social environment. So it is not surprising that discoveries in epigenetics are being enthusiastically embraced by those who find the fatalism often associated with classical genetics rather soul-destroying. But it is important not to overstate the case for epigenetics. DNA sequence, its vari
20 July 2009 - by Sandy Starr 
From our perspective at the Progress Educational Trust (PET), one of the most welcome aspects of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee's new report 'Genomic Medicine' is its consideration of public engagement issues. This section of the report appears to anticipate and complement PET's plans for its 2009 annual conference, entitled 'Does Genetics Matter? Help, Hype and the New Horizon of Epigenetics', which will take place in East London on Wednesday 18 November....
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