Developmental origins of disease and determinants of chromatin structure: maternal diet modifies the primate fetal epigenome

J Mol Endocrinol. 2008 Aug;41(2):91-102. doi: 10.1677/JME-08-0025. Epub 2008 May 30.


Chromatin structure is epigenetically altered via covalent modifications of histones to allow for heritable gene regulation without altering the nucleotide sequence. Multiple lines of evidence from rodents have established a role for epigenetic remodeling in regulating gene transcription in response to an altered gestational milieu. However, to date, it is unknown whether variations in the intrauterine environment in primates similarly induce changes in key determinants of hepatic chromatin structure. We hypothesized that a maternal high-fat diet would alter the epigenomic profile of the developing offspring, which would result in alterations in fetal gene expression. Age- and weight-matched adult female Japanese macaques were placed on control (13% fat) or high-fat (35% fat) breeder diets and mated annually over a 4-year interval. Fetuses in successive years were delivered near term (e130 of 167 days) and underwent necropsy with tissue harvest. Fetal histones were acid extracted for characterization of H3 modification and chromatin immunoprecipitation (ChIP) with differential display PCR; fetal RNA, DNA, and cytoplasmic and nuclear protein extracts were similarly extracted for comparison. Chronic consumption of a maternal high-fat diet results in a threefold increase in fetal liver triglycerides and histologic correlates of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. These gross changes in the fetal liver are accompanied by a statistically significant hyperacetylation of fetal hepatic tissue at H3K14 (199.85+/-9.64 vs 88.8+/-45.4; P=0.038) with a trend towards the increased acetylation at H3K9 (140.9+/-38.7 vs 46.6+/-6.53; P=0.097) and at H3K18 (69.0+/-3.54 vs 58.0+/-4.04; P=0.096). However, epigenetic modifications on fetal hepatic H3 associated with gene repression were absent or subtle (P>0.05). Subsequent characterization of key epigenetic determinants associated with H3 acetylation marks revealed similar significant alterations in association with a high-fat maternal diet (e.g., relative fetal histone deacetylase 1 (HDAC1) gene expression 0.61+/-0.25; P=0.011). Consistent with our mRNA expression profile, fetal nuclear extracts from offspring of high-fat diet animals were observed to be significantly relatively deplete of HDAC1 protein (36.07+/-6.73 vs 83.18+/-7.51; P=0.006) and in vitro HDAC functional activity (0.252+/-0.03 vs 0.698+/-0.02; P<0.001). We employ these observations in ChIP differential display PCR to attempt to identify potential fetal genes whose expression is reprogramed under conditions of a high-fat maternal diet. We quantitatively confirm a minimum of a 40% alteration in the expression of several genes of interest: glutamic pyruvate transaminase (alanine aminotransferase) 2 (GPT2) (1.59+/-0.23-fold; P=0.08), DNAJA2 (1.36+/-0.21; P=0.09), and Rdh12 (1.88+/-0.15; P=0.01) are appreciably increased in fetal hepatic tissue from maternal caloric-dense diet animals when compared with control while Npas2, a peripheral circadian regulator, was significantly downmodulated in the offspring of high-fat diet animals (0.66+/-0.08; P=0.03). In this study, we show that a current significant in utero exposure (caloric-dense high-fat maternal diet) induces site-specific alterations in fetal hepatic H3 acetylation. Employing ChIP, we extend these observations to link modifications of H3 acetylation with alterations in gene-specific expression. These results suggest that a caloric-dense maternal diet leading to obesity epigenetically alters fetal chromatin structure in primates via covalent modifications of histones and hence lends a molecular basis to the fetal origins of adult disease hypothesis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Blotting, Western
  • Chromatin / genetics
  • Chromatin / metabolism*
  • Chromatin Immunoprecipitation
  • Dietary Fats / pharmacology*
  • Epigenesis, Genetic / drug effects*
  • Female
  • Fetal Development / drug effects
  • Fetal Development / genetics
  • Gene Expression Profiling
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Developmental / drug effects*
  • Heat-Shock Proteins / genetics
  • Heat-Shock Proteins / metabolism
  • Histones / metabolism
  • Liver / drug effects
  • Liver / embryology
  • Liver / metabolism
  • Macaca
  • Male
  • Maternal Nutritional Physiological Phenomena
  • Pregnancy
  • Reverse Transcriptase Polymerase Chain Reaction


  • Chromatin
  • Dietary Fats
  • Heat-Shock Proteins
  • Histones