Epigenetics, Phenotype, Diet, and Behavior

  • Patrick O. McGowan
  • Michael J. Meaney
  • Moshe Szyf


An organism’s nutritional, behavioral, physiological, and social milieu influence the epigenome, which comprises chromatin and a covalent modification of DNA by methylation. Epigenetic patterns are sculpted during development to shape the diversity of gene expression programs in the different cell types of the organism. In contrast to the genetic sequence, which is determined by inheritance and is identical in all tissues, the epigenetic pattern varies from cell to cell and is potentially dynamic through life. It is postulated here that different environmental exposures, including early parental care and diet, could impact epigenetic patterns early in life and throughout life, with implications for mental health in humans. Since epigenetic programming defines the state of expression of genes, epigenetic differences could have the same consequences as genetic polymorphisms. However, in contrast to genetic sequence differences, epigenetic aberrations are potentially reversible. This chapter will discuss basic epigenetic mechanisms and discuss in detail how epigenetic processes might play a role in defining the long-term behavior of the offspring in the rat as a model for early maternal care and dietary manipulations affecting the epigenome. We will propose a mechanism linking maternal behavior and epigenetic programming. We will discuss the possibility that epigenetic variations play a role in generating interindividual differences in human behavior and mediating the impact of environmental exposures on our genes. In this regard, we will discuss data suggesting that dietary changes in methyl contents could affect DNA methylation and gene expression programming. These findings provide evidence for a stable yet dynamic epigenome capable of regulating phenotypic plasticity through epigenetic programming.


Histone Acetylation HDAC Inhibitor Maternal Care Gene Expression Programming Epigenetic Variation 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



CREB binding protein


DNA methyltransferase


Histone acetyltransferase


Histone deacetylase


HDAC inhibitor ()


Histone methyltransferase ()




Methylated domain DNA-binding Protein 2


Nerve growth factor-inducible protein A


S-adenosyl methionine


Trichostatin A



This work was supported by the Sackler Foundation, and by grants from the Human Frontiers Science Program (HFSP), the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR), and the National Institute of Child Health and Development (NICHD) to MJM and MS.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Patrick O. McGowan
  • Michael J. Meaney
  • Moshe Szyf
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.Sackler Program for Epigenetics and PsychobiologyMontrealCanada
  2. 2.Department of Pharmacology and TherapeuticsMcGill UniversityMontrealCanada

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