Poor nutrition in the womb may leave a newborn baby at greater risk of diabetes by altering the way the body stores fat.
Scientists identified a mechanism by which fat ends up accumulating in the liver and muscle, thereby creating conditions that can lead to the disease.
Professor Anne Willis, director of the Medical Research Council Toxicology Unit at the University of Leicester, said: “One of the ways that our bodies cope with a rich modern western diet is by storing excess calories in fat cells. When these cells aren’t able to absorb the excess then fats get deposited in other places, like the liver, where they are much more dangerous and can lead to Type 2 diabetes.”
At the heart of the process is a microRNA – a regulatory genetic molecule – called miR-483-3p.
A study of pregnant rats found those fed low protein diets gave birth to offspring with higher levels of the molecule. As a result, they developed smaller fat cells and were less able to store fats the right way in adulthood.
The rats were less likely to gain weight with a high calorie diet, but more likely to develop diabetes.
Humans appear to be affected the same way, according to the findings published in the journal Cell Death and Differentiation.
The team also found raised levels of the microRNA in a group of people born with a low birth weight.
MiR-483-3p works by suppressing a protein called GDF3 which was present at only 30 per cent of its normal level in the low-birth weight individuals.
Study leader Dr Susan Ozanne, from Cambridge University, said: “It has been known for a while that your mother’s diet during pregnancy plays an important role in your adult health, but the mechanisms in the body that underlie this aren’t well understood.
“We have shown in detail how one mechanism links poor maternal diet to diabetes and other diseases that develop as we age.”
Prof Willis added: “Improving people’s diets and encouraging exercise is clearly the best way to combat the epidemic of diabetes and diet-related disease which is sweeping through our society. However some people are at particular risk of these diseases, despite not looking visibly overweight. This research will hopefully allow us to help these people to take precautionary steps to reduce their likelihood of developing Type 2 diabetes.”
More than two million people in the UK suffer from Type 2 diabetes. The disease leads to poor regulation of blood sugar levels which can result in life-threatening complications.
Professor Douglas Kell, chief executive of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) which funded the study, said: “Modern diets and lifestyles are posing new challenges to which our bodies sometimes seem poorly adapted and this has resulted in unforeseen health problems.”