Johannesburg: In a new study, researchers have identified four new genetic regions that influence birth weight, providing further evidence that genes as well as maternal nutrition are important for growth in the womb.
Three of the regions are also linked to adult metabolism, helping to explain why smaller babies have higher rates of chronic diseases later in life.
It has been known for some time that babies born with a lower birth weight are at higher risk of chronic diseases such as type-2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Three genetic regions have already been identified that influence birth weight, two of which are also linked to an increased susceptibility to type 2 diabetes.
The latest study analysed almost 70, individuals of European, Arab, Asian and African-American descent from across 50 separate studies of pregnancy and birth.
The findings of the new study confirmed the three regions previously identified and also revealed four new genetic regions that are associated with birth weight.
One of the new genetic regions is also associated with blood pressure in adulthood, providing the first evidence of a genetic link between birth weight and blood pressure. Two of the regions are known to be linked to adult height, showing that genes involved in growth begin to take effect at a very early stage.
“Our findings add to the growing evidence that events during early growth in the womb can have a significant impact on our health as adults,” News24 quoted Professor Mark McCarthy, co-author of the study from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics at Oxford, as saying.
“However, these genes tell only part of the story. It’s important that we understand how much is down to genetics and how much is due to the environment in which we grow so that we can target efforts to prevent disease later in life,” he added.
Together, the newly identified genetic regions have a surprisingly large effect on birth weight when compared with known environmental influences.
“Birth weight is subject to powerful influences from many environmental factors. It was a surprise to see that the genetic effects in combination have a similar impact to that of maternal smoking in pregnancy, which itself is well known to lead to lower birth-weight babies,” Dr Inga Prokopenko, co-lead author from the University of Oxford, said.
The study has been recently published online the journal Nature Genetics.