Donor Eggs Epigenetics and Birth Mother
Do birth mothers using donor eggs have a significant impact on the development and future health of their babies? The resounding answer is yes. Because the baby’s DNA will only come from the egg donor and the sperm provider, many women using donor eggs worry that they will not share any genetic information with their child. However, abundant research into epigenetics has shown us that the prenatal uterine environment plays a crucial role in fetal brain development, childhood metabolism, immune health, and numerous other factors. Read on to learn about donor eggs epigenetics and the vital role your body will play in your future child’s development.
The Importance of the Prenatal Window
There are several sensitive times during human development. The preconception period (or time before pregnancy) and post-natal period (the time after birth) play an important role in your baby’s health. However, the most crucial point of time in human development is the time a child spends in the uterus. This period is known as the prenatal window.
Historically, the uterus has been viewed as nothing more than an oven. While we’ve known for generations that the uterus provides oxygen and nutrients to the baby, we have only recently started exploring just how important the uterine environment is in human development. New research on both humans and animals has shown us that the maternal environment influences brain development, metabolism, immune system function, and more.
From a biological perspective, this makes sense. The prenatal window allows a mother to prepare her baby for the outside world. A healthy uterus will communicate healthy environmental conditions to a baby. Unfortunately, unfavorable environmental conditions can also affect the baby negatively. One well-studied example of this phenomenon proves just how large of a role a mother’s living conditions can play in her baby’s development.
What We Can Learn From the Dutch Hunger Winter
One of the first times that scientists were able to study the effects of maternal environment on the health of children was following World War 2. In the winter of 1944 and 1945, the German occupation caused a food delivery blockage in the Netherlands. This period, known as the Dutch Hunger Winter, led to widespread starvation and famine conditions. During this time, many Dutch people were eating as little as 400 calories a day. Children born during the Dutch Hunger Winter were studied decades later, and scientists found that these people grew up to have higher rates of obesity and diabetes than the general population.
During the famine, the starving mothers “told” their fetuses that food supply was low and that their bodies must conserve calories. However, the famine ended after these babies were born, and they grew up in the food-abundant post-war era. These babies naturally developed metabolic conditions due to the uterine environments of their starving mothers, causing them to be predisposed to obesity and other weight-related health problems. The Dutch Hunger Winter is an example of just how powerful a mother’s uterus can be to the health and development of her child.
Psychological Stress and the Health of Your Donor Egg Baby
While you probably won’t endure conditions as stressful as the Dutch Hunger Winter during your pregnancy, the stressors in your daily life can still have an impact on your baby. While physical stressors obviously impact maternal health, new evidence has shown us that maternal psychological stress during pregnancy can increase the risk of adverse physical and mental outcomes for the baby.
Psychological stress causes a woman’s cortisol levels to rise. Cortisol, also known as the stress hormone, can cross through the placenta and affect fetal brain development. Research has shown a link between elevated maternal cortisol levels and changes in childhood brain anatomy and cognitive performance. Psychological stress can also cause a maternal inflammatory response, which can lead to inflammatory molecules passing to your baby through the placenta as well. These inflammatory molecules can affect the nerve connections in the fetal brain, which can cause delayed cognitive development and contribute to emotional and behavioral problems as the child grows.
Inflammation due to maternal psychological stress can cause physical problems in your child as well. This inflammation can put your child at an increased risk for obesity, insulin resistance, abnormal lipid profiles, and immune system conditions. Stress is a part of everyone’s daily life. However, it’s important to remember that your psychological health can impact your child. If you are experiencing issues with your mental health, speak with your doctor. Together, you can create a plan to stay as mentally healthy as possible for your baby.
How Your Genes Impact Your Baby: Understanding the Science
How do changes in your environment impact your growing fetus? We know that genes ultimately control all human processes; and if you are using donor eggs, these will be the genes of your egg donor. However, the switches that turn our genes on and off may play an even greater role in health and development. These switches are known as epigenetic controls.
The most studied form of epigenetic control involves silencing genes by the placement of a molecule called a methyl group (also known as DNA methylation ). When scientists studied the children born during the Dutch Hunger Winter, they saw that the children had different methylation profiles. Scientists are currently studying a variety of epigenetic controls to better understand which conditions impact fetal development. We will explore other exciting developments on epigenetics in future blog posts, so stay tuned.
Improving Your Maternal Environment
How can a mother-to-be improve her prenatal environment given our rudimentary understanding of the processes that affect fetal development? The most common sense approach is one that most women already adopt during and when preparing for pregnancy . Maintaining optimal weight, adopting healthy dietary habits, avoiding alcohol, monitoring caffeine, and taking prenatal vitamins will all allow you to create a healthy and comforting uterine environment for your baby. Attention to stress levels and maintaining stress-reducing activities during pregnancy are equally important for creating a healthy uterine for your baby.
It should be noted that the pre-conception window also plays a crucial role in a baby’s development. Thus, adopting these healthy approaches is best initiated before conception. Beginning a healthy lifestyle before pregnancy and maintaining this lifestyle while pregnant, will help your body to stay healthy while the baby is developing.
While most research in this area has focused on adverse maternal environments, it is fair to assume that a healthy maternal environment likely impact brain development and childhood health in a positive way. Maintaining optimal health is likely to support healthy cognitive and behavioral function, metabolism , and appropriate immune system response in your child.
If I Use a Donor Egg Will The Baby Have My DNA?
It is true that when using a donor egg, the baby will inherit DNA from the egg donor and the sperm and not the recipient mother, but heritability is more complicated than that. For DNA to function it has to receive instructions, just like computer hardware has to receive instructions from the software program. In nature, the software is called epigenetics and is very much present inside the uterus as the baby grows. Studies have shown that birth mothers, including women carrying a donor egg baby, can influence such important factors as metabolism and brain development through epigenetic modulation while their baby is developing in the uterus.
Chromosomal Crossover Donor Egg
The egg actually has two types of DNA, the type that is inherited from parents and a second type housed in small organelles called mitochondria. Mitochondria are the energy producing factories inside human cells including eggs. Sperm introduces the 3rd source of DNA upon egg fertilization. After fertilization, egg and sperm DNA intermix and segregate allowing the fertilized egg to proceed with embryo development. DNA is located in the nucleus of the egg but is supported by many organelles in the cytoplasm of the egg – think of the nucleus as the egg yolk and the cytoplasm as the egg white. As women age, the supporting organelles in the cytoplasm including mitochondria lose function leading to faulty DNA segregation and embryo development. It is theorized that if the nucleus from an egg containing the DNA from the egg and sperm provider could be transferred to a young donor egg that had its DNA removed, the resulting embryo would develop more normally and retain the genetic origin of parents. Although this technique has been proven to work in monkeys and to some extent in human embryos, the FDA has banned it due to the fact that the resulting embryo actually contains DNA from 3 sources (egg, sperm and donor egg mitochondria) so called 3-parent IVF.
Will the Baby Look Like the Egg Donor?
Physical characteristics are inherited from DNA provided by the egg and sperm provider and not the birthing mother. Since egg and sperm DNA intermixes and recombines, the characteristics of the child may favor one parent, both parents or neither parent – everyone has seen a child that looks nothing like his parents. With egg donation the DNA comes solely from the eggs and sperm.
If I Use Donor Eggs Will the Baby Look Like Me?
Even after learning about the crucial role your uterus plays in fetal development, you may still be wondering ‘will the baby look like me?’ when using donor eggs. Women who conceive naturally wonder this too! In the end, there is no way to determine what exactly your child will look like. What you can control, however, is the condition in which your baby develops.
While conception begins when an egg cell meets a sperm cell, motherhood begins in the womb. Factors influencing childhood begin in the mother’s body long before she becomes pregnant. Your uterine environment will influence the development of your baby in numerous ways. Take care of yourself while preparing for donor egg pregnancy, and continue good health practices as your baby develops inside you. This will allow you to pass on health benefits to your child, setting them up for the best future possible.
To learn more about egg donation, including the cost of donor eggs and success rates of IVF with donor eggs, and how you can increase the chance of healthy pregnancy when using donor eggs contact us online or call 424-385-0100.
If you need information to decide between using fresh vs frozen donor eggs, we invite you to explore our egg donation blog where we list pros and cons of both, as well as provide tips on choosing your egg donor and more.