Epigenetic changes in early life and future risk of obesity

Int J Obes (Lond). 2011 Jan;35(1):72-83. doi: 10.1038/ijo.2010.122. Epub 2010 Jun 15.


The rapid increase in incidence of obesity over the past two decades cannot be explained solely by genetic and adult lifestyle factors. There is now considerable evidence that the fetal and early postnatal environments also strongly influence the risk of developing obesity in later life. Initially, human studies showed that low birth weight was associated with an increased risk of obesity but increasingly there is evidence that overnutrition in the early life can also increase susceptibility to future obesity. These findings have now been replicated in animal models, which have shown that both maternal under- and overnutrition can induce persistent changes in gene expression and metabolism. The mechanism by which the maternal nutritional environment induces such changes is beginning to be understood and involves the altered epigenetic regulation of specific genes. In this review, we discuss the recent evidence that shows that early-life environment can induce altered epigenetic regulation leading to the induction of an altered phenotype. The demonstration of a role for altered epigenetic regulation of genes in the developmental induction of obesity opens the possibility that interventions, either through nutrition or specific drugs, may modify long-term obesity risk and combat this rapid rise in obesity.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • DNA Methylation / genetics*
  • Epigenesis, Genetic* / genetics
  • Female
  • Fetal Development
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Male
  • Obesity / genetics*
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Nutritional Physiological Phenomena
  • Rats
  • Risk Factors