A groundbreaking discovery by Washington State University molecular biologist Michael Skinner could lead to a paradigm shift in our understanding of disease that could affect medicine, toxicology—even evolution.

The findings suggest not all diseases are traceable to genetic mutations. Rather, some may be caused by environmental compound exposures that can be traced back as far as four generations.

Dr. Skinner’s research found that when pregnant rats were exposed to environmental toxicants to gauge the effect on testis development, the immediate male offspring as well as the next two generations of male pups had lowered sperm counts. As the animals aged a host of diseases from cancer to immune dysfunction developed for all generations examined.

These epigenetic changes, or changes that occur due to chemical modification of the DNA, altered the function of the genes similar to flipping a light switch. The implications for human health include the possibility that events in a person’s lifetime—such as exposure to toxicants, stress, or disease—could affect that person’s descendants several generations later.


Featuring: Michael K. Skinner, Ph.D.

Dr. Skinner’s research has grabbed worldwide attention. His findings were published in the prestigious journal Science last June, and the January 2006 issue of Discover included his work on its list of the “100 top science stories of 2005.”