IVF

Using Donor Eggs? Look Beyond Genetics and Into Epigenetics

If you’re considering using frozen donor eggs to help grow your family, you might also be wondering what sort of biological impact, if any,...
Dr. Jaime Shamonki, Chief Medical Officer, Donor Egg Bank USA •Mar 22, 2022

If you’re considering using frozen donor eggs to help grow your family, you might also be wondering what sort of biological impact, if any, you’ll have on your baby, given the fact that they’ll be inheriting their DNA from the egg donor rather than from you. The reality is that your baby’s development, health, and even future well-being are greatly dependent on your body, from day one. And that’s due — much in part — to something known as epigenetics. 

Here’s what RN and Donor Egg Bank USA’s physician relations manager, Becca Murillo, has to say about it.

Epigenetics: Helping DNA to Express Itself

Here’s how it works. Let’s start with DNA. We all remember that from seventh-grade science class, right? It’s that twisty ladder, or double helix, containing all of the genetic information that determines things like eye color, gender, height, and so much more. It’s the source of information that provides the “blueprint” for every one of our cells. 

While the information on each strand of DNA is fixed at the time the egg is fertilized by the sperm, the way in which DNA is expressed will change depending on an organism’s environment. If you think of genes like a switchboard, the “switches” only serve a single purpose, but a variety of factors determines whether they are switched on or off. This is due to epigenetics, a complex set of reactions that controls the development and maintenance of an organism by “switching” parts of the DNA on and off at strategic times and locations along the DNA’s sequence of information.

Our environment, especially in gestation, can have a lifetime effect on how our genes are expressed. This is one explanation for how your health and wellness during pregnancy affects the health and wellness of your baby. By adopting healthy behaviors, and limiting exposure to certain things, you can help create an ideal environment (and even future) for your baby.

Factors you are exposed to during your pregnancy, such as your diet, alcohol intake, exposure to toxins, infection, stress, or trauma, lead to the release (or absence) of certain chemicals by your body. Those chemicals will be translated into signals that instruct the “switch” to turn on or off. This is how the intrauterine environment can influence the expression of your baby’s DNA and its development.

Making Choices and Taking Control

Research has determined just how essential a healthy diet is for favorable growth and development in utero, and beyond. One well-known study that helped researchers understand the concept of epigenetics, focused on children of mothers who experienced famine conditions during the “Dutch Hunger Winter” from 1944 to 1945. When researchers compared the health of the children born to these mothers before this starvation period, with that of those born right after, they discovered significant differences. Those children who were in utero during the famine were much more likely to exhibit lower birth weights. More surprisingly, these children who were exposed to poor nutrition in utero also exhibited greater susceptibility to poor health issues as adults, such as heart disease, obesity, and even breast cancer. Modifiable environmental factors and their epigenetic effect on developing babies are something that researchers are greatly interested in learning even more about.

It has also been proven that the correlation between prenatal care, epigenetics, and your baby’s well-being extends beyond just physical influences. There’s a great deal of research indicating the connection between a mother’s level of stress while pregnant and epigenetic activity that’s linked to issues such as low birth weight, preterm birth, and a multitude of other concerns, some of which can appear later in life. This means, of course, that conversely, managing stress and anxiety (even before you become pregnant) can help in bringing about more positive and healthier outcomes for your baby.

Making a World of Difference for Your Baby

There’s no doubt that your baby will be a product of your family’s culture, values, and boundless parental love. However, if you are considering egg donation, you may be concerned about the fact that you cannot directly pass on your own genetic traits, such as your blue eyes, curly hair, or perhaps the ability to carry a tune. Rest assured, knowing that what you can offer your child is something perhaps even more biologically valuable. Thanks to the role of epigenetics, your nurturing womb can help your baby lead their healthiest life, well into adulthood.

My conversation with Fertility Rescripted’s co-founder, Kristyn Hodgdon, is a great way to learn more about how epigenetics can help any parent to create the most beneficial environment for their baby. And, if you would like to learn more about using frozen donor eggs to help grow your family, just visit us at https://donoreggbankusa.com for more information. 

Jaime Shamonki, MD is the Chief Medical Officer at Generate Life Sciences. She is also a physician with unique expertise in regenerative medicine, reproductive medicine, genetics, and clinical laboratory management.