Views / Citizen Scientist

Science shows that famine isn't over when it's over

Starvation leaves scars in the DNA of its victims — and their children.

Mothers wait for therapeutic infant formula in famine-ravaged South Sudan. The impact of the world's largest humanitarian crisis in 70 years could be felt for generations to come because of the genetic fingerprint of famine.

The associated press

Mothers wait for therapeutic infant formula in famine-ravaged South Sudan. The impact of the world's largest humanitarian crisis in 70 years could be felt for generations to come because of the genetic fingerprint of famine.

Twenty million people are at risk of starvation as famines sweep Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen and South Sudan.

Canadians, richly blessed as we are, should be giving more than our fair share to help stop the suffering — for the sake of the victims, their children and even their grandkids.

That’s because when the immediate crisis passes, it won’t actually be in the past. An emerging body of science shows starvation leaves invisible scars, layered on people's genes.

Starvation and nutrient deficiency profoundly alter our body chemistry, including by disturbing the precisely regulated process of turning particular genes on and off at particular times. This DNA on/off switch is called methylation — sticking certain molecules onto genes to change their function.

We don’t exactly know why methylation gets messed up during starvation, but we’ve seen the results: Poor health outcomes among people who live through famine. It’s especially acute for children whose mothers were starved during pregnancy. And those changes can be passed on. Tragically, history has left researchers with no shortage of case studies.  

Children who were in the womb during the Dutch Hunger Winter of 1944-1945 grew up to have higher risk of heart disease, obesity and schizophrenia. Their children were more likely to be born too small, yet grew up to suffer disproportionately from obesity.  

Children of mothers who lived through China’s calamitous 1959-1961 famine suffer from hyperglycemia at double the normal rate. The same is true of their children. Research on victims of the 1974-1975 famine in Bangladesh suggests this effect may be due to methylation of the PAX8 gene, which regulates the thyroid and is involved in metabolism.

I could go on. But do you really need another reason to support famine relief?

More on Metronews.ca