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A recent study found that being born through a cesarean section can cause epigenetic changes in a baby’s DNA.

Okay, so what is epigenetics?
Epigenetics studies the change in expression of genes through chemical reactions. It does not involve changing the actual genetic code itself but rather turning genes on and off. Our external environment can trigger certain mechanisms (i.e. methylation or histone modification) which can cause these changes. The changes can be temporary (existing only for the lifespan of the cell) or more permanent by lasting multiple generations.

Although c-sections were mainly used as a “last resort” option because of potential side effects (such as hemorrhaging, depression, child obesity), rates are increasing dramatically worldwide. The paper from AJOG showed that there were higher rates of methylation in the stem cells of 18 babies delivered by cesarean compared to 25 from vaginal birth. A detailed analysis showed methylation in 350 different regions, some of which influence the immune system. Professor Ekstrom hypothesized that the level of stress that a baby undergoes during a vaginal birth activates the baby’s defense systems to prepare it for life outside the uterus. Those delivered by cesarean prior to the beginning of labor, however, do not undergo this stress. Professor Ekstrom notes that because these epigenetic changes could be either temporary or permanent, it would be interesting to determine whether a c-section could have an effect on multiple generations of offspring.

Think About:

1. How do best practices change as new research comes out?
2. What kind of study would be best to determine the effects of these epigenetic changes?
3. How does epigenetics play a role in the nature vs. nurture debate?

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