Israeli researchers show periods of starvation can affect descendants

“We will continue to study these fascinating phenomena.”

November 29, 2016 00:55
2 minute read.
A scientist looks through a microscope

A scientist looks through a microscope. (photo credit: INGIMAGE)

Israeli scientists have found that telomeres – the ends of chromosomes known to affect aging and lifespan – shrank in men born immediately following a severe famine and were even smaller in males born for the next three or more generations.

A team of researchers from Tel Aviv University, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba and Bar-Ilan University’s Faculty of Medicine in the Galilee just published their findings in an article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

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Their impressive findings were based on examination of white blood cells taken from the Chuvash people, a Turkic ethnic group native to an area stretching from the Volga Region to Siberia who survived severe hunger in 1922 and 1923.

The study is relevant also to our times, the researchers said, as there is still widespread hunger and malnourishment today.

“The question is whether inadequate nutrition or even intentional fasting can shorten the lives of hungry people and their descendants,” the article said. “We will continue to study these fascinating phenomena.”

“Telomeres are unique DNA sequences found at the two ends of each chromosome, and they shorten with every division of the cell (mitosis),” Ben-David wrote.

“Studies in the past point to the clear connection between the dynamics of telemeres and aging and life expectancy in man. Our study examined whether severe hunger influences the length of telomeres in humans who survived it and also in their descendants.”

They therefore studied the Chuvash, who live in small villages on the eastern bank of the Volga River in the eastern European plain of Russia.

The team visited the community three times – in 1994, 1999 and 2002 – and collected blood samples from 687 men and 647 women who were born between 1909 and 1980, representing 410 nuclear families. They then examined the white blood cells in the samples.

The population was divided according to age groups. Those born between 1909 and 1921, who were between ages one and 13 years during the famine; those born between 1922 and 1923, who were born during the famine itself; those born between 1924 an 1928, born a short time after the famine and whose parents were exposed to hunger at a fertile age; and those born after 1928, including the descendants of famine survivors.

The results were most dramatic among men, with significant differences seen between groups. Those with the smallest telomeres were those born immediately after the famine ended, between 1924 and 1928. Those with the longest chromosome ends were found in those born before the famine, between 1909 and 1921.

The researchers thus understood that the famine did not affect the telomeres of children who experienced famine first hand. The greatest impact was on telomeres of children born to parents who experienced hunger as adults. In other words, it seems that the reproductive cells of the parents who experienced hunger while of reproductive age sustained the most serious injury to their chromosomes, very possibly due to intensified harm from the psychological pressure during the difficult period. The researchers also found that relatively short telomeres also appeared in three subsequent generations born between 1929 and 1980.

The researchers were headed by Prof. Yair Ben-David (Eugene Kobyliansky) of the anatomy and anthropology department in TAU’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine, together with doctoral student Dmitry Torchinsky of the school of chemistry in TAU’s Exact Sciences Faculty, Dr. Leonid Kalichman of the physiotherapy department in BGU’s Health Sciences Faculty and Prof. David Karasik of Bar-Ilan University.

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