154: The Famine Secret of Överkalix, Sweden

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Manage episode 290030240 series 2102363
By Dr. Karl Goldkamp. Discovered by Player FM and our community — copyright is owned by the publisher, not Player FM, and audio is streamed directly from their servers. Hit the Subscribe button to track updates in Player FM, or paste the feed URL into other podcast apps.

The Överkalix study could be one of the most important studies ever done to show that some of the changes passed down to the next generation have little to do with one’s parents’ DNA. Those changes are more about the stresses that one’s parents’ grandparents (including the grandfathers and great-grandfathers of the fathers) experienced pre-puberty. That study changed everything in terms of how the scientific world looked at genetic inheritance. One man spent most of his life documenting it, yet his initial work was deemed non-credible. Today, we will share the story of what happened.

Dr. Lars Olov Bygren

In the 1980s, Dr. Lars Olav Bygren, a Swedish Preventative Health Specialist, took it upon himself to find out what the long-term effects of the feast and famine years might have on the children and also their subsequent children and grandchildren, growing up in Överkalix in the 1800s.

A culture of recordkeeping

Överkalix was an area that had a culture of recordkeeping. So, Dr. Bygren was able to access all the records of the crops they grew, how much they harvested, and the crops that failed. The local parish kept all the records of the births and deaths in the area.

Going back almost a hundred years

Those records allowed Dr. Bygren to go back almost a hundred years. By analyzing the meticulous agricultural records, Dr. Bygren and two colleagues determined how much food had been available to the parents and grandparents when they were young.

The effects of parents’ experiences

Dr. Bygren wondered if that effect could get started even before pregnancy. He wanted to know if parents’ experiences early in their lives could somehow change the traits that they would pass on to their offspring.

Similar findings

Dr. Bygren began searching for anyone else who might have similar findings. He contacted Marcus Pembrey, a clinical geneticist in London, and told him about the Överkalix data. Pembrey found that something other than DNA was moving between the generations.

The conclusion

The Överkalix boys who had experienced a feast season when they were pre-pubescent died on average six years earlier than the grandsons of the Överkalix boys who got exposed to a famine season during their pre-pubescent years.

Dr. Bygren and Marcus Pembrey

In 2000, Dr. Bygren and Marcus Pembrey worked together on several issues. Finally, the Överkalix Study got published in an Italian medical journal. After that, it became a sensation.

A question

A question that followed was: Can the inheritance of epigenetic marks be proven to occur in people such that the environments and choices of grandparents affect the bodies of children?

What Dr. Bygren found

Dr. Bygren found that adolescents who grew up during famines tended to have children and grandchildren who lived markedly longer lives. Sometimes by thirty years or longer. The descendants of those who grew up during bountiful harvests lived significantly shorter lives due to higher rates of cardiovascular disease, obesity, and diabetes. The study suggests that epigenetic changes can be altered by environmental factors.
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Överkalix study

199 episodes