A New Study Suggests That The Experience Of Poverty Changes Our Genes

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A new Northwestern University study challenges the view that genes remain fixed from birth.

A Northwestern University study has found that poverty can become embedded in our genes. This study has challenged the prior understanding of genes, which is that they are fixed at conception.

In the study, researchers uncovered evidence that lower socioeconomic status (SES) is associated with DNA methylation (DNAm), which is a mark that could shape gene expression across over 1,500 genes. This means that poverty leaves a mark on almost 10 percent of genes.

The study’s lead author, Thomas McDade, said that this is important for two reasons.

“First, we have known for a long time that SES is a powerful determinant of health, but the underlying mechanisms through which our bodies ‘remember’ the experiences of poverty are not known,” said McDade, professor of anthropology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern. McDade is also the director of the Laboratory for Human Biology Research.

“Our findings suggest that DNA methylation may play an important role, and the wide scope of the associations between SES and DNAm is consistent with the wide range of biological systems and health outcomes we know to be shaped by SES.”

Second, McDade said that experiences become embodied in the genome to literally shape its structure. “There is no nature vs. nurture,” he explains.

“This pattern highlights a potential mechanism through which poverty can have a lasting impact on a wide range of physiological systems and processes,” he said.

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