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Acquired Characteristics May Be Inheritable

kdawson posted more than 5 years ago | from the Lamarck's-revenge dept.

Biotech 242

A story from a week or so back in Technology Review describes research coming to the surprising conclusion that Jean-Baptiste Lamarck may have been right — that acquired characteristics can be passed on to offspring, at least in rodents. Lamarck's ideas have been controversial for 200 years, and dismissed in mainstream scientific thinking for nearly that long. "In Feig's study, mice genetically engineered to have memory problems were raised in an enriched environment — given toys, exercise, and social interaction — for two weeks during adolescence. The animals' memory improved... The mice were then returned to normal conditions, where they grew up and had offspring. This next generation of mice also had better memory, despite having the genetic defect and never having been exposed to the enriched environment."

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Finally... (2, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#26869039)

something that explains religion...

Re:Finally... (4, Funny)

RuBLed (995686) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869431)

Interesting eh? So how did it explained religion?

Is it where the first ones get all the good stuff and the offsprings only get to dream/think about it? Well I could understand that if the scenario was giving dozens of virgins to one guy, the rest would only dream about it. In that case it would be a supply and demand problem, not an inherited one. (or in our case as /.ers, it might not even matter if there's an abundance in the supply anyway.)

Re:Finally... (2, Insightful)

goombah99 (560566) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869789)

Interesting eh? So how did it explained religion?

Well it appears that proclivity for social interaction is acquired. PLus it is somthing you can pass on to others without genetics.

What's not quite clear to me here is if the children mice were separated from the adults at birth. if not then perhaps the adult mice just are passign on behaviours. if so then maybe there is some extra genetic means of passing things on at the cellualr level or perhaps mice in the womb can experience the behaviours of their parents.

For example, if the preacher droning or the choir singing somehow releases endorphins in the mother that increase blood flow to the fetus, perhaps an association with certain sensory input can be learned at the fetal level.

DNA Learning (2, Insightful)

mfh (56) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869059)

It could be one day possible to create a kind of device that harmonizes human beings early on in childhood development, increasing their awareness and understandings.

Re:DNA Learning (1)

DigiShaman (671371) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869091)

Sure, why not? It would have to be provided by male side though as a female's eggs are fixed in numbers from birth.

Re:DNA Learning (0, Troll)

Anthony_Cargile (1336739) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869107)

It could be one day possible to create a kind of device that harmonizes human beings early on in childhood development, increasing their awareness and understandings.

Nah, too easy to invade privacy or get hacked that way (see: big brother [wikipedia.org]). On an unrelated note, its good to see some old^H^H^Hlow UIDs out and about!

Re:DNA Learning (2, Interesting)

zappepcs (820751) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869127)

That is actually the point. To learn to teach ourselves and our children in the best possible way. Unfortunately, there are those that would have us taught certain things regardless of their merits or value or truth.

Recently, researchers found that there might be a manner to attach the brain to limbs that have no function due to nerve damage. Apparently there are parts of the brain that can learn to do any function with some training. This means that neuropathways in our brains can be altered through training and remain fixed in this position for many years. There is no magic to suppose that this alters biochemistry to suit the new use. If you ask me (and I know you didn't) this is part of how evolution works. Once monkeys start using tools I doubt they will ever magically 'forget' how to use them. It won't be but a generation or two before this is part of normal brain function. If you've ever watched a new foal learn to walk within hours of birth, then learn to run in the same morning, you will no doubt wonder what is in the horses brain that makes them capable of this? Humans and other mammals have a long learning cycle for this.

As mentioned, this might explain religion however tenuously. There are studies happening as we speak about how the brain is hardwired for religion, or more specifically accept that magic is responsible for things outside our current ability to understand them.

The important next point would be showing altered biochemistry and/or genetic change due to learning/experience. The studies like the one that hints that engineering types are more likely to have boys than girls is important. It means that or hints that brain chemistry has biochemical effects on us and our offspring via genetics. Animal husbandry would tell us this if we listened, but we need to see it in humans to fully 'get it'... I don't want to say that this is more evidence for the support of eugenics, but... well, it seems likely.

Truly, we are not yet done learning about the human condition. Perhaps one day we will be able to engender and recognize many more folk like Einstein or Newton et al. Unfortunately that will only come at the price of recognizing others as second class citizens or some form of Gattica etc.

I hope that it is used to improve the condition of all, not simply the best or those most able to pay. Genetic change/mutation comes to all, just as rain does not fall only on the unjust. Eugenics would limit the gene pool and that would be bad for all of us ... in the long run.

Hopefully this will turn out to be a good thing and not leave the human race with the regrets Nobel died with.

Re:DNA Learning (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#26869263)

too long, didn't read (see below [slashdot.org].

Re:DNA Learning (0, Offtopic)

lostmongoose (1094523) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869557)

or more specifically accept that magic is responsible for things outside our current ability to understand them.

A wizard did it.

Re:DNA Learning (3, Insightful)

Forrest Kyle (955623) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869145)

How about books? I know that parents barely try that anymore, but reading does that.

Re:DNA Learning (2, Funny)

MrNaz (730548) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869411)

Or we could create environments where children are encouraged to learn and behave in a mutually co-operative manner! These institutions could perhaps replace schools...

Re:DNA Learning (3, Funny)

gardyloo (512791) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869569)

It could be one day possible to create a kind of device that harmonizes human beings early on in childhood development, increasing their awareness and understandings.


Re:DNA Learning (1)

ultranova (717540) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869823)

It could be one day possible to create a kind of device that harmonizes human beings early on in childhood development, increasing their awareness and understandings.

Maybe, but this study doesn't indicate that. It's far more likely that the parent rodents, who's behaviour had been altered by their conditioning (how else could the scientists know their memory had been altered?) simply altered the childhood conditions their offspring. That is, of course, passing on an acquired trait, but so is culture.

Brain plasticity (1)

elashish14 (1302231) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869069)

Of course. The brain is quite plastic at such an early stage of development. This is why people that lose vision have great hearing and smelling, etc. My question is whether these effects can occur when the brain isn't the problematic organ.

In any case, the problem is making sure that we can identify these problems while there's still time to nurture someone to overcome it. The brain is far more plastic in early stages of life than it is in older ones.

Re:Brain plasticity (1)

Bottlemaster (449635) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869753)

Of course. It's no surprise that the first generation's memory improved. As the other half of the summary states, this acquired trait was apparently passed on to the second generation, which as far as I know (having not read the article either), can't yet be explained.

Interesting... (5, Informative)

drosboro (1046516) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869079)

Lamarck is one of those guys who's name is generally synonymous with bad science (he's about as villified as Darwin is deified). I'm actually a bit (pleasantly) surprised that someone would invest the time into this sort of study.

That being said, the article is rather short in one important area: a suggested mechanism for this sort of inheritance. Without that, it's bound to be mired in controversy for some time.

Re:Interesting... (5, Informative)

MoellerPlesset2 (1419023) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869115)

Lamarck is one of those guys who's name is generally synonymous with bad science (he's about as villified as Darwin is deified).

What? I've heard Larmarck's evolutionary ideas ridiculed but villified?
He wasn't that unscientific. He was just wrong.

Or are you thinking of Lysenko? Now that particular advocate of inherited-acquired-characteristics was indeed a villain, a lousy scientist and a political tool.

Re:Interesting... (0, Redundant)

ultranova (717540) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869859)

What? I've heard Larmarck's evolutionary ideas ridiculed but villified?
He wasn't that unscientific. He was just wrong.

Actually he was right. You inherited your native language from your parents and will pass it on to your children, but don't have any English/Spanish/Mandarin/whatever genes. Language is an inheritable acquired trait, as is all culture.

Or are you thinking of Lysenko? Now that particular advocate of inherited-acquired-characteristics was indeed a villain, a lousy scientist and a political tool.

From what I've heard of him, it seems likely that he was simply insane in the sees-things way, and used as a tool by Stalin's regime.

Re:Interesting... (5, Insightful)

cryptoluddite (658517) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869133)

Article doesn't say what interactions the adult mice had with their offspring. The benefit may have just been passed to the next generation through regular learning, modeling, etc.

I don't know about lab mice, but rat packs have a pretty complicated social structure (for example nominating food tasters to try new sources of food) so I'd bet that mice can teach their young a lot more than researchers might suppose.

Re:Interesting... (5, Informative)

drosboro (1046516) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869153)

Actually, I've just taken a peek at the original article in J. Neuroscience, as posted in the comments below.

The interesting thing is that this seems to be passed on at embryogenesis - so it's quite distinct from learning. It's also quite distinct from other epigenetic inheritance studies, which have demonstrated that some of mom's behaviour can result in changes in the offspring's tissues. If this is in fact happening at the embryo stage, it is a whole different pathway.

Re:Interesting... (4, Informative)

ceoyoyo (59147) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869189)

Yes, it does. The article says that the changes are still evident even when the pups are raised by control rats, NOT their mother.

It also says the change is not permanent - it only lasts a few months. I didn't notice any mention of whether the mother rat still functions at a high level when she's pregnant. If she does, the change could be due to the environment in utero, which would be consistent with the effect fading over time.

Re:Interesting... (5, Insightful)

Kandenshi (832555) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869151)

Here's my personal suggested mechanism.

Enriched environments have long been known to make mice 'happier' in addition to being better at solving various tests, and having larger brains, etc. This stress-reducing effect has been known to be maintained long after the rats are removed from the enriched environment.

The change in the mother rats should fully be expected to be partially shared with the pups. The womb is not a completely separate environment that just happens to exist inside the mother, her experiences shape what sort of chemicals(beneficial or detrimental) are delivered to the baby.

A healthier, less stressed out mother is likely to nurture her babies properly while they're in utero, and uterine environment that's not bathed in stress hormones is generally a preferable one for the baby's neurological development.
TFA also mentions that an opposite effect occurs, where highly stressed mothers had babies that then also abused their pups tend to have pups that themselves are poorer mothers. They don't mention if problem solving tests were given to these rats, but I'd fully expect that they'd show deficits in tests of memory and intelligence.

The researchers in the article say that this is a completely shocking discovery, I'd be shocked if it didn't happen. The stress response affects not only the mother, but also the baby, and those changes can be noticed in their later lives. Quel surprise.

Re:Interesting... (1)

im_thatoneguy (819432) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869443)

And exposing a mother to alcohol has effects on the baby as well.

This test is pretty rediculous. Feed a human mother alcohol and the baby can turn out mal-adjusted. Have a human mother smoke a pack of cigarettes every day and the baby might turn out different.

Yes human and mouse mothers, what you're exposed to during preganancy can have an effect on your child outside of genetics.

It should also be noted that darwin proposed "Survival of the Fittest" without any knowledge of genetics. Whether or not changes can occur before or after conception is irrellevant. It's still survival of the fittest. If a finch aquires the ability to eat a nut a day before mating or the day it was conceived is irellevant. The point is you genetically/chemically/spiritually/intellectually transfered an important survival trait to another animal which then out gunned its competition and managed top ass along that same trait genetically/chemically/spiritually/intellectually.

Re:Interesting... (1)

dasunt (249686) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869783)

The researchers in the article say that this is a completely shocking discovery, I'd be shocked if it didn't happen. The stress response affects not only the mother, but also the baby, and those changes can be noticed in their later lives. Quel surprise.

I always figured that was realistic as well. Mothers and fetus share many of the same chemicals. Isn't it evolutionary adventageous for the offspring to adapt itself to the environment (the chemicals) it causes? Does the mother seem to have low stress and plenty of food? Time to grow into a large healthy offspring. Mother under high stress and less food? Smaller offspring will survive on less food, and perhaps faster maturation as well, since it seems that they could be at risk of dying before being able to breed.

Re:Interesting... (4, Insightful)

williamhb (758070) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869161)

That being said, the article is rather short in one important area: a suggested mechanism for this sort of inheritance. Without that, it's bound to be mired in controversy for some time.

This is an unfortunate shortcoming of science at the moment. A tested result is rejected until there is a suggested mechanism; as soon as a mechanism is suggested, it is all too often treated as "true" even if the mechanism itself has never been experimentally tested at all but was just plucked out of the air. The one that instantly springs to mind is the 2005 result that being cold can after all make you susceptible to catching a cold. The paper is reasonable and itself admits that its "suggested mechanism" (that capillaries in the nose constrict, reducing access by the immune system) was not itself tested by the authors, but was just an idea they came up with when their actual experiment -- do people sitting around with their feet in bowls of icy water catch colds more often -- gave a positive result. Nonetheless, that mechanism very quickly started getting bandied around as if it were gospel.

Re:Interesting... (5, Insightful)

im_thatoneguy (819432) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869551)

How is that a shortcoming of science?

1) The researches found a result.
2) Proposed a possible mechanism.
3) Stated the mechanism was untested and might just be bullshit they cooked up at the pub.

4) People misreport guess of researchers as "Fact!" ...
6) "Shortcoming of science!" (and profit?)

It's sort of like saying that the urban legand "People think we only use 10% of our brain even though research has shown this to be almost certainly false." is a shortcoming of science.

People talk. People like to have "all the answers". The problem is with gossip not science. 'Science' hasn't ruled on the subject yet. The official stance of 'science' is that the mechanism is unknown.

Just as 'science' has only found that mouse mothers subjected to certain conditions can pass along the effects to their children even after the conditions have ceased. The mechanism should be discovered before any other conclusions can be reached. The summary is attempting to assign far more consequence to the study than study can provide. The shortcoming is with vague and speculative reporting not science. /rant

say it aint so... Re:Interesting... (3, Insightful)

bukuman (1129741) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869633)

I really hope it's not the case that results can be rejected due to the lack of a mechanism to explain them.

Darwin had no mechanism to back his theory of 'origin of species by natural selection'. The mechanisms people had theorized at the time were not really compatible with Darwin's ideas. It wasn't till Mendel's work was appreciated that people had a viable mechanism for the inheritance that fit with Darwin's evolutionary theory.

Re:Interesting... (1)

mapkinase (958129) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869227)

General molecular mechanism that could explain inheritance of acquired characteristics is epigenomic environment of the mother's cell. All cells in our bodies have the same DNA, yet they are drastically different in the function, structure, etc.. The reason for that is that persistent self-sustained combination of concentrations of all biomolecules is different in different cells. This environment dictates which genes are silent and which are not.

In short, DNA determines "what" but does not say how much of each.

That includes gametes of the mother: same genetic material could play differently depending on the differences in the chemical composition that were present in the mother's egg at the moment of consumption.

Re:Interesting... (3, Informative)

Tubal-Cain (1289912) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869245)

a suggested mechanism for this sort of inheritance

Epigenetics? [wikipedia.org]

Re:Interesting... (1)

interkin3tic (1469267) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869731)

Not too long ago there was a study in which bisphenol A, a component of plastics, eaten by mice caused epigenetic changes in the next generation.


I'm not sure how far these epigenetic changes were observed to last though, but there is the implication that these could be acquired traits which are heritable.

Re:Interesting... (3, Informative)

dunelin (111356) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869253)

There is a mechanism for this kind of inheritance and it is part of a growing field called epigenetics. Whether genes are present are not as important as how they are expressed. Are they switched on or off? Experiments show that gene expression can be altered by environment and that epigentic information can be passed down to the next generation. There was a great Nova episode about it.


I'm not sure if this is the exact mechanism involved in this study, but it is a possibility.

Re:Interesting... (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#26869329)

This is a crock of BS.

First, no one "deifies Darwin". Second, Lamarck is widely respected in France as the father of evolution, and that's exactly what he was. Ideas about evolution were bouncing around for a long time before Lamarck, but he was the first one to lay down an actually scientific theory of evolution. No educated biologist would "vilify Lamarck".

But the fact remains that he simply didn't get it right. He didn't figure out the branching tree of life, and he didn't figure out natural selection. "Inheritance of acquired characters" wasn't even an original Lamarckian contribution, he merely endorsed it as part of his theory, as did Darwin.

Re:Interesting... (1)

interkin3tic (1469267) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869771)

Second, Lamarck is widely respected in France as the father of evolution, and that's exactly what he was.

It's rather telling that he is only really considered the father of evolution in france, his home country. He did contribute very important points that Darwin built on, but it's hard to say that he's the father of evolution when did not get natural selection or the origin of variation correct.

Vilified is overstating it though. The theory was incomplete, but it is diminished only by the magnitude of Darwin's work. Had the typical incremental process of scientific theories happened (instead of Darwin laying so much out by himself) Lamark could easily have been the giant in the field.

Re:Interesting... (2, Informative)

yog (19073) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869449)

One can hypothesize that certain actions lead to genomic changes that will be replicated in the germ line (oocytes or spermatocytes).

We already know that mutations can introduce genomic changes that are propagated to the offspring. It could be as simple as a replication error in the spermatocyte.

We also know that hormones activate parts of the genome that may be inactive. Depending on the type of hormone, they enter the cell or effect a change in the cell that causes activation of a segment of DNA in the nucleus that will induce the production of a protein or enzyme. It's possible (but I am not sure--perhaps a biologist here can confirm) that some of the activation mechanisms are actual mutations rather than the removal of inhibitory substances on the chain.

Given the huge amount of stuff we don't know, it's reasonable to suppose that mutations that propagate to the offspring might be caused by the development of traits in the parent such as enhanced learning. After studying some genetics, I have come to believe that almost any of these things is possible, and we have a ton left to learn.

The theory some are offering here that behavior is passed on via non-genetic pathways is of course also plausible but would not be necessarily a permanent alteration in the population. Have they looked at the 3rd and 4th generations yet?

Obviously, an improvement in intellectual abilities that results in a permanent germline change would have huge ramifications for humans. Yet, smart people don't necessarily have smart offspring. A mediocre person who manages to uplift themselves to a high level of intellectual achievement might be expected to have smarter kids, but this doesn't seem to be a trend. Then again, a massive study might confirm or disconfirm this.

Luckily, we have a more science-friendly administration and hopefully they will start throwing more money at this kind of basic research, our general national bankruptcy notwithstanding. Friends at NIH and NIST have told me their budgets are going up, so something new is happening, at least. I'm not a fan of big government, but (depoliticized) science funding is definitely a good thing that benefits the country and the entire world.

Does it need one? (1)

Weaselmancer (533834) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869761)

That being said, the article is rather short in one important area: a suggested mechanism for this sort of inheritance.

Does it really need one?

You can do an experiment, you get results. These results suggest...something. It is able to be duplicated. It follows scientific method and rigor.

The only problem is - most of the methods I can think of this sort of thing using are most decidedly nonscientific. Let's face it - this is closer to philosophy than science. It stands up to testing rigor, but...I just don't see a readily available purely scientific explanation. This experiment seems a little closer to Frank Herbert than modern day science.

For now though, I think it's enough that we can observe this. It suggests interesting things.

Actual article (5, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#26869089)

Here's the actual article [jneurosci.org].


Nautical Insanity (1190003) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869097)

But I'm interested in how they think the trait for intelligence gets passed on. It might be important to note what causes the genetic defect. It could be a change in a site that is actively expressed, or it could be a change in whether the area of the chromosome responsible for the brain function is activated. There are still lots of gaps in our knowledge in what causes gene expression because it's based upon more than just start and stop codons, but also on the structure of the molecule. It could be possible that environmental factors changed some physical element of the gene causing it to be expressed again, though to me that sounds almost as much of a soft sci-fi nightmare as "genetic memory." Perhaps someone who is a geneticist can shed some light on possible vectors for this hereditary intelligence.

professor of stating the bleeding obvious (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#26869297)

From the journalist's article

"If the findings can be conveyed to human, it means that girls' education is important not just to their generation but to the next one," says Moshe Szyf of McGill University, in Montreal, who was not involved in the research.

It strikes me that this is a stunningly redundant observation -- that a girl's education has an effect on her offspring. Move the mother to France and teach her French, and it doesn't require complex genetics to unravel why her offspring also speak French.

Histone modifications (5, Informative)

Rand310 (264407) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869101)

We're just learning that Histone/DNA modifications can be inherited.

Histones (the spools around which DNA is stored) tell when the DNA source code should be 'active' vs 'inactive'. And these histones have a huge data space in the form of possible modifications (methylation, acetylation, etc.).

When DNA is replicated, these histones too are replicated at the same time. And they seem to be replicated in a semiconserved manner similar to DNA (half go to 'old' strand, half go to 'new' strand). And that there is a whole series of touring-like proteins that can 'read' 'write' or 'erase' these modifications.

If these modifications are made during an organism's life, they can be inherited by offspring.

Not only is the code being copied, but the 'marks' that tell which/when/where to read the code at any given time/condition too can be passed down. And that these marks can be written in real time rather than waiting for mutations in the code itself.

There was a recent study that XO females who inherited the X from their father had markedly different dispositions than those who inherited the X from their mother. DNA modification that is unique to how the male or female deal with their own X chromosome could be being passed down to offspring.

Re:Histone modifications (1, Interesting)

zappepcs (820751) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869179)

That answered a couple of questions that I have. I'm saying thanks, and ensuring that I can find your post again so I can look more of that information up when I have the time. That there is a possible mechanism says tons given that it does explain most of what is needed to pass the trait on.

To me, this is one of the great mysteries of evolution. Not a physical trait, but a social trait becomes widespread. Social groupings and culture do not fully account for many things in my view. A genetic susceptibility to assuming a trait would explain many things that do not yet have a good explanation. Put simply, how do we inherit the equivalent of programming?

They say that small children who have never seen a spider are afraid of them? How did they learn that? Perhaps the hardwired instincts we are born with are not so hardwired as inherited programming. Which of course makes them changeable, and has implications for nature vs nurture questions. All very interesting.

Re:Histone modifications (1)

Gorobei (127755) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869205)

Who are "they?" There are a ton of studies showing small children are not afraid of bugs (typically, give child a cup with a big fake bug on it -- little children don't care, bigger ones freak out.)

Re:Histone modifications (1)

zappepcs (820751) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869293)

Sorry, can't find the study report now. It was to do with instincts, or those brain programs we seem to be born with. Where you say little kids don't care about bugs but older children do, I see kids who are afraid, and kids who are not and I question: Why is that? This would explain it or at least give a possible explanation. To the point of evolution, such things could be passed to offspring supporting survival even in the absence of parents or guardians. This does not apply to all aspects of life it seems, but it does explain some fundamental issues.

on the question of intelligence we often compare all artificial attempts at intelligence to the human mind. A process that I feel is fundamentally flawed given the nearly complete lack of scientific understanding how the human mind works. It's all very interesting.

Re:Histone modifications (1)

Gorobei (127755) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869367)

"Why is that?" has an easy answer: children learn to be afraid of bugs. It is not an innate response.

It's easy to test:
1. have a child
2. repeatedly show child bugs

Child only gets grossed out at around age 5. Investigation done.

My kids are 6 and 4 -- the 6yro hates bugs, the 4yro finds them interesting. In a year or two, the 4yro will hate bugs, and will have learned to associate them with decay, rotting, etc. It's a simple heuristic, nothing more.

Article mentioning poss. instinct re: spiders (2, Interesting)

zooblethorpe (686757) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869631)

This [post-gazette.com] might be something like what zappepcs was remembering. I dimly recall reading similar research several years ago -- basically, the findings are that babies appear to be more aware of or interested in snake and spider shapes, but do not fear them until they've seen an adult express fear at them. A choice excerpt (emphasis mine):

Even though the babies pay special attention to spiders and snakes, they do not innately fear them, Dr. Rakison said.

"If you put a baby in a tank with a snake," he said, "they would show no fear whatsoever."

Instead, babies seem to have a "perceptual template" for the creatures that primes them to be scared of them once they see an adult showing such fear.

All of this could be rooted in our evolutionary history, Dr. Rakison said, and could even explain why we might fear spiders and snakes more than lions and cheetahs, for instance.

"It's thought our ancestors spent a great deal of time on the savannas in Africa, so you could see lions coming from a distance," he said.

"Spiders and snakes tend to be hidden from view, though, and you tend to see them close up. Our ancestors, particularly the women, spent a lot of time gathering food, on their knees with their infant close by, so you can imagine you're picking plants out of the ground and all of a sudden there's a snake or a spider right there."

Dr. Rakison's baby studies build on earlier work with monkeys done by Susan Mineka at Northwestern University.


Re:Article mentioning poss. instinct re: spiders (1)

cosmicwave (1461501) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869663)

Err, I'm not so sure. Babies may not fear them because their fear mechanism has not been developed yet, or they are not cognitively aware enough to know what the spider/snake is apart from any other object or animal. Sure, they can be conditioned to fear, but what about those like me who were conditioned to NOT fear those things but still do?

I have always been scared of spiders even though my grandma would try to get me to not be afraid of them at a young age. She used to tend to her large garden and did not mind them. In that sense, I was never taught to fear insects, but I believe I inherited a gene that tells me to stay away from them, which explains my irrational fear.

Re:Histone modifications (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#26869509)

Remember, there is nothing to fear but fear itself... and spiders.

Re:Histone modifications (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#26869637)

I don't know where I remember this from but I seem to recall something to the effect that infants are born with only two instinctive fears:

Fear of loud noises
Fear of falling

RTFA (1)

Gorobei (127755) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869183)

The article says nothing about DNA "modifications."

When a mommy mouse makes a baby mouse, the baby mouse depends on:
1. The DNA it gets from the mom and dad mice.
2. The chemical/hormonal environment during development in the womb.

The article says point 2 is more important than expected (although there is a lot of folk wisdom that implies it, so it may be more that scientists dismissed/ignored/couldn't test a fairly obvious hypothesis.)

No DNA modification/Lamarkian inheritance is going on: beyond raw DNA, happy mommy mice give birth to happy baby mice, etc.

Re:RTFA (2, Insightful)

Cyberax (705495) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869211)

Read what grandparent says.

It's actually quite possible that epigenetic DNA modifications DO happen in these mice.

Re:RTFA (1)

Gorobei (127755) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869251)

The grandparent post was gibberish about histones.

No one is claiming epigenetics is false. You just don't need to invent a bunch of random ideas to explain what is observed.

Re:RTFA (1)

Rand310 (264407) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869299)

How do you expect that the 'chemical/hormonal environment' affects the progeny in a heritable manner?

It is quite possible that under certain environments certain sections of the DNA can be activated - and that these activations (in memory or elsewhere) can be heritable.

This is not necessarily what is going on in the article, but it is an interesting and tested if unknown means by which non-genetic heritability can take place.

Re:RTFA (1)

Gorobei (127755) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869455)

Numerous studies have observed that desire-to-explore vs desire-to-hide in offspring is affected by the stress of the mother during pregnancy. From an evolutionary point of view, it's a no-brainer, and needs no genetic explanation. It's about the most basic non-genetic survival mechanism you could have: if mom is stressed, get born in keep-your-head-downl mode, else, get born in exploit-the-environment mode.

Re:RTFA (1)

Rand310 (264407) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869471)

How though?

Through what mechanism?

It does make sense. But how do you get there?

Histone modifications and other such epigenetic effects give a tested and possible avenue for exploration. An avenue that is currently being studied in the scientific community.

What biological mechanisms would create 'conditions' with such affects?

Re:RTFA (1)

Gorobei (127755) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869615)

Given that the entire physical offspring is constructed from chemical inputs from the mother (save for 1 sperm,) the most parsimonious explanation is that if, during this bootstrapping process, stressor molecules (e.g. adrenaline-type compounds) are encountered, the offspring selectively activates its stress-related systems.

The whole "growing from a cell into a live-birth animal" thing is a really complex process. It's why, for example, given the complete elephant DNA, you *can't* make an elephant: you also need the interaction between the mommy elephant and the developing baby elephant. Growing from 1 cell into a billion cells is not a totally programmed process: there is tons of feedback/decision points based on the interaction between the host parent and the progeny. It's probably accurate to describe the process as "chemical warfare:" the progeny is trying to suck every resource it can out of the mother, and the mother's body is fighting back to avoid dying. Is it really so surprising that the offspring is born with traits that are influenced by the mother's state? The converse would be more surprising.

Re:Histone modifications (2, Interesting)

wizardforce (1005805) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869185)

That is an excellent post on epigenetics. Incidentally it should be noted that methylation changes gene expression through altering the interaction between the molecular machinery responsible for synthesizing proteins and DNA in which cytosine residues are methylated. Histone proteins can be alterest as well to alter the tightness in which they are bound to DNA which also affects gene expression.

So true, we still have much to learn too. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#26869215)

Genetics is a rather young science. We have made huge gains since Watson and Crick, but we really don't understand what the bulk of our DNA does.

Re:Histone modifications (2, Interesting)

loxosceles (580563) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869291)

If these modifications are made during an organism's life, they can be inherited by offspring.

Aren't you skipping over the lateral transfer step?

It's not just about whether there are mechanisms besides DNA that can statically store data, or whether the environment (say, learning) can influence that data storage in a non-random manner.

Even assuming DNA itself could be changed non-randomly in response to the environment, those changes still have to be transferred to gametocytes in order to be inheritable.

I'm not a biologist but I know there are some theories about lateral gene transfer in differentiated organisms, and I thought those were still pretty sketchy. Given the novelty of histone research, I suspect they haven't gotten very far in investigating, much less demonstrating, lateral transfer of histone-encoded data.

So... not at all saying that what you're proposing is impossible, just that it seems pretty speculative.

Wouldn't you need (1)

vlad_petric (94134) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869459)

the histones within the reproductive cells to be modified though?

I can totally picture how this could happen for conventional non-reproductive cell division, but that generally doesn't affect at all offsprings.

I'm not saying that you're wrong, I'm just really wondering how that's happening.

Memetics? (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#26869131)

My first thought is that it could be a meme. Somehow, the environment caused mice acquire a (subtle) behavior which their offspring acquired (mice can learn by observation) and stimulated their brains resulting in better memory...

Can anyone else comment?

Re:Memetics? (2, Funny)

Hal_Porter (817932) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869303)

From my internet knowledge I know that cancerous memes are passed from newfags to oldfags (e.g. Boxxy! U RAF U RUSE). This would appear to be the opposite direction to parents passing useful knowledge to their children.

Lack of control? (2, Insightful)

noidentity (188756) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869143)

mice genetically engineered to have memory problems were raised in an enriched environment [...] The mice were then returned to normal conditions, where they grew up and had offspring. This next generation of mice also had better memory, despite having the genetic defect and never having been exposed to the enriched environment.

Who's to say the enrichment caused this, lacking a control whose parents were NOT raised in an enriched environment? And if they did do a control (RTFA, yeah right), the explanation could simply be that the enriched environment resulted in a more healthy womb that the offspring grew in. Parents pass a lot more than just DNA to their offspring.

Re:Lack of control? (2, Informative)

drosboro (1046516) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869243)

There was certainly no shortage of control groups (they did several controls, apparently following standard protocol for this type of research, according to the original journal article).

As for the "healthy womb" hypothesis, I think that the interesting thing is the specificity of the effect - the offspring show the same changes in a specific biochemical pathway (that compensated for a genetic defect) that the mother had as a result of the enriched environment. Not to say that it couldn't be just a healthy womb effect, but the specificity of the whole thing seems to point elsewhere.

Re:Lack of control? (2, Interesting)

Telvin_3d (855514) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869409)

So the obvious follow-up would be to get mice with a different genetic defect that is related to learning. Do the same thing with them and see what pathways are affected. Depending on results, it could really shake things up.

Mice parents? (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#26869167)

I'm sorry, so the offspring of these mice stayed with the general population and their parents?

Couldn't this be an argument for nurture? Heck, just competing with other mice.

Like the youngest learning to eat first in some families...

I'm not convinced that there is anything even remotely of interest here.

Re:Mice parents? (1)

drosboro (1046516) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869217)

There doesn't seem to be anything in the original article (J. Neuroscience) to suggest that the offspring were kept with the parents. It's a bit short on methodology, because they're using standard protocols that are just referenced from other papers, but it seems like the offspring are "whisked off" to their own cages.

Simpsons Did It (1)

devnullkac (223246) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869237)

Actually, it was Newsweek [newsweek.com], a month ago. There was even a follow-up online-only piece [newsweek.com] on the same experiment as TFA that was out one day earlier.

To comment on the topic at hand, though, it's no surprise that there are elements beyond genetics that contribute to evolutionary success. Embryology is extraordinarily complicated and there's plenty of room in there for the environment supplied by the mother to affect the form of the child, especially in species that gestate internally as long as most mammals do.

Wait, how does it get passed? (4, Insightful)

Richard.Tao (1150683) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869261)

Females have all the eggs made before they're born, so how could the genetic material in them be affect by the conditions that the mother grew up in? Sperm DNA seems like it could be modified by the father according to living conditions, but it seems odd to think that environmental information in the brain would be passed down to the testes and such... It seems more plausible to think it's just the mice had a better mother.

Re:Wait, how does it get passed? (1)

im_thatoneguy (819432) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869487)

DNA is only part of the equation. Put a frog egg in mildly radioactive water and see what happens.

This study essentially just says "The environment of the pregnant mother can have an effect on the offspring." To which I say ... "Duh". Push down a 6 pack of budlight every day while preganant and I can disprove mendelson as well. No genetic manipulation!

Re:Wait, how does it get passed? (3, Informative)

Zerth (26112) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869521)

Many genes are only activated in the presence of certain helper chemicals. Similarly, some proteins can only fold properly with the assistance of helper enzymes. Some of these helper systems form a loop and are kickstarted by the uterine environment.

If you disrupt one of those loops by injecting hormones or other methods of altering body chemistry, like scaring the living shit of a mouse at an early age, the cycle will break and thus affect the uterine environment and not kickstart the next mouse's production of those chemicals.

I could've sworn it had already been shown that pumping adrenaline into young female mice caused them to be adrenaline-sensitive and their progeny to be maternal inheritably adrenaline sensitive, but I can't find a link for it.

Re:Wait, how does it get passed? (1)

DarkProphet (114727) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869837)

I suppose its possible that immature eggs can still be affected by the mother's body chemistry prior to and/or at fertilization. The question is what is the mechanism in which body chemistry can influence gene expression? My guess is that the particular chemistry of the ova (and likewise sperm) may impact which sections of DNA are "flagged" as active or not (junk DNA). It makes sense that cellular chemical composition would play heavily into the development of a fertilized egg the same way a pregnant mother's chemistry can dramatically affect the baby's development (e.g. crack babies). DNA itself is not solely responsible for making us who and what we are, but it would be worthwhile to know in what ways (if at all) we could pass on positive traits to our offspring aside from gene manipulation.

Not a surprising result ..... (3, Insightful)

bcwright (871193) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869265)

Really, this is hardly a surprising result. There are many possible mechanisms that suggest themselves, operating either on the embryo or on the newborn - parents who are more intelligent are likely to be able to pass on more of what they've learned and/or provide a "richer" environment for their offspring, even if we're only talking about mice. The mammalian brain is remarkably plastic.

The real problem for the Lamarckian paradigm is that once you've optimized the environment, socialization, and gene expression for the animals in question, it's hard to propose a mechanism for making more radical changes through "acquired characteristics" - and in fact no such changes have been observed. This study does not change that fact.

The original article sounds to me to be altogether too credulous and sensationalistic.

Re:Not a surprising result ..... (2, Informative)

osu-neko (2604) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869379)

Really, this is hardly a surprising result.


There are many possible mechanisms that suggest themselves, operating either on the embryo or on the newborn - parents who are more intelligent are likely to be able to pass on more of what they've learned and/or provide a "richer" environment for their offspring, even if we're only talking about mice.

"The findings held true even when pups were raised by memory-deficient mice that had never had the benefits of toys and social interaction."

So, tell us, how are the more intelligent parents passing this on to their children when their children are being raised by the less intelligent "control mothers"? Are you suggesting some sort of psychic connection of between these mice and their real, more intelligent mothers? Or did you just not read the article in question, and are basing the criticism on the summary alone? I know, it's /., but still...

Re:Not a surprising result ..... (1)

bcwright (871193) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869479)

It's hard to be sure since the original article is not a proper journal article, but if I understand it correctly, the pups were swapped between the mothers at birth. This clearly allows for considerable influence of the birth mother, even though it would not be as strong as it would be if she had raised the pups as well. Various nutritional and hormonal influences might be at work here - in fact this struck me as a major weakness in the study: they should have swapped the embryos at a very early stage in development, but that's less convenient. In any case I do not think it is necessary to posit either some kind of "psychic connection" or full-blown Lamarckianism.

And yes, I did read the article in question before I posted. And FWIW, my degree is in evolutionary biology. I know it's /., where flames are the order of the day, but I think your comments are uncalled-for.

This Just In... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#26869267)

Freud Confirms the Theory of Genetic Memory!
As it so happens, all of those men that wanted to sleep with their mothers were simply recalling the last memory inherited from their fathers' just prior to conception.

Coming up: President Bush recollects his vine-swinging days. Story at 11.

"Inheritable?" (2, Funny)

Dr. Spork (142693) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869333)

Doh, why didn't someone tell me that "inheritable" means "heritable"?

Re:"Inheritable?" (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#26869381)

LOL. English can be such a confusing language. :-)

Sort of analogous to "flammable" and "inflammable": There are a number of such word pairs where what look like they ought to be opposites are in fact synonyms.

Re:"Inheritable?" (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#26869553)

US English: flammable :: British English: inflammable

Re:"Inheritable?" (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#26869797)

That's only part of the story. The word "flammable" was introduced into American English, essentially by the government, specifically because safety regulators worried that the "in" prefix could confuse people. Etymologically speaking, "inflammable" means "capable of being inflamed". Of course, this relates to fire, but also bad tempers, and so on.

"Flammable" comes from the Latin verb "flamare" -- to set on fire. It was used by the English, but was basically abandoned until after WW2, when it gained acceptance in America.

http://www.write101.com/W.Tips215.htm [write101.com]

Re:"Inheritable?" (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#26869575)

What a country!

Re:"Inheritable?" (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#26869781)

I think what you mean is, "Inheritable means heritable? What a country!"

Wake me when... (1)

Slur (61510) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869383)

...they cut off a mouse's leg and the offspring are shown to walk funny.

Species Specific Behaviors (1)

DynaSoar (714234) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869451)

That's what a good deal of what "instincts" are better called. Such behaviors occur sometimes in animals that do not learn from their parents or other functioning adults. In order for these to exist, they had to have been incorporated genetically. Since the species did not exist at some time in the past, the species and the behavior had to have evolved concurrently. Surgical excision of the part of the brain known to relate to a behavior disrupts the behavior. If there were no pathway for acquired behaviors to be passed along genetically we'd all still be oozing around in a pool of slime mold. This is yet another 'science' article about a minor aspect of a known phenomenon, written in such a way as to make it seem this recent contribution discovered and/or explains it. If this occurs in 9 out of 10 articles on /. it's because that's how often it occurs in what now passes as science writing in the media.

Occam's razor? (1)

martin-boundary (547041) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869483)

In Feig's study, mice genetically engineered to have memory problems were raised in an enriched environment

I'm not a biologist, but this raises my Occam's razorblade.

Why wouldn't the simplest explanation be that the genetic engineering didn't "take" across the generations, ie that the "normal" characteristics reasserted themselves in the offspring due to standard DNA redundancy mechanisms? Another simple explanation would be that the researchers didn't fully understand just what exactly their genetic engineering actually accomplished.

It's one thing to observe an improvement from a normal baseline, it's another to observe a reversion to the normal baseline from an artificially induced abnormality.

Not a joke... (4, Interesting)

chill (34294) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869519)

In Soviet Russia, Lamarckism as interpreted by Lysenko [wikipedia.org] in agriculture, was the state mandated approach and genetics was essentially outlawed until the 1960s. Geneticists were fired from jobs, sent to work camps, prison or just executed.

Useful results for treatment (1)

SpeleoNut (610127) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869585)

The inheritance mechanism is interesting but for practical purposes is not necessary to understand to start applying this knowledge. This holds great promise for those who suffer from neurological disorders where there appears to be both a genetic and environmental component to the phenotype (eg. bipolar). An equivalent "enriched" environment (eg. improved socio-economic conditions, tailored primary education programmes, etc. rather than say institutionalisation) might help families with a history of these disorders reduce the severity of symptoms over successive generations.

I can think of about 20 ways (1)

Jane Q. Public (1010737) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869607)

or more that external factors could have influenced this experiment. I strongly suggest taking it with a grain of salt.

Odd timing (1)

cjfs (1253208) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869609)

Just read part of the Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins. Paragraph I left off on starts with

It is not possible to prove that acquired characteristics are never inherited. For the same reason we can never prove that fairies do not exist. All we can say is that no sightings of fairies have ever been confirmed and that such alleged photographs of them as have been produced are palpable fakes.

The article does seem to be a bit of stretch, especially ending with "However, he cautions, there is no direct evidence of this, and no specific evidence that the behaviors are transmitted through epigenetic mechanisms."

Re:Odd timing (1)

bcwright (871193) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869793)

This is a standard result of classical epistemology - it's certainly not original with Dawkins, it was already ancient generations before he was born. Proving a negative (any negative) is very difficult and usually impossible in just about any subject other than mathematics and logic and the like. Similarly we can't prove that flying saucers don't exist - but if anyone were to exhibit an example of any of these things, then that's all that's needed to prove that it does exist.

It's an amusing coincidence that you were reading that at the same time but I'm not quite sure what it's supposed to prove.

not news (1)

jipn4 (1367823) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869653)

This has been known for quite a while. However, only fairly little information can be transmitted this way, and that information lives on a DNA substrate.

Think of the DNA as a printed book, and the "acquired characteristics" are like little bookmarks you leave in the book: they can't alter the text, but they can direct you more quickly to different parts and change your reading experience.

Might as well use it (1)

Tablizer (95088) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869701)

It's been known for at least a few decades that breast milk carries "trainer" cells for a child's immune system. This makes sense evolution-wise: if the offspring can borrow "knowledge" from the parent, then it can help the offspring without waiting several generations for such ability to evolve genetically. The ability to use beneficial shortcuts will be passed on more often.

Needs confirmation (1)

G3ckoG33k (647276) | more than 5 years ago | (#26869705)

I am not saying this is bad science, or that they didn't find the results they did, just that the study belongs to a category where you likely need independent confirmation before accepting theur claim.

Why? Well, in behavioral studies it is notoriously difficult have repeatable results, due to small test series and the high sensitivity of the parameters themselves, which typically are measured on very crude scales.

It is a bit like judging contestants in chamber music in a steel plant. You need an awful lot of judges and repeated plays in order to discern the virtuosos. Bad analogy, but I hope you get the point.

Such perfect research. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#26869707)

What a perfect study. You take some rats. Make them retarded. Then help make them better again. Then let them have offspring. When the offspring come out normal, you come to the conclusion that it is because of the retarded parents learning to be unretarded. This really makes a whole lot of sense. Great use of millions of dollars of research money. Good thing the government is going to spend an additional 700 quadrillion dollars (of YOUR money) on additional research like this. That will stimulate the economy so much, it will have multiple orgasms. Then its offspring will be better economies.

George Carlin already said it. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#26869723)

  That we need to stop rewarding peoples hard work because hard workers are coded for hard work, so why are we celebrating something they had no choice over. Paraphrasing from Orgy of George.
I tend to believe that too.

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