A genome-wide analysis conducted by researchers at Northwestern University has revealed that growing up poor can leave an imprint on nearly 10 percent of the genes in our genome. In other words, your body never forgets the experiences of being poor.

In the study that staunchly challenges our understanding of genes as unchangeable features of biology fixed at birth, the team uses genetic and survey data taken from around 500 participants to adjudicate that poverty can indeed restructure your genes and genomes affected by it stick with you for life. They identified an association between socioeconomic status (SES) and the role of epigenetics in shaping how the genes express.

“First, we have known for a long time that SES is a powerful determinant of health, but the underlying mechanisms through which our bodies ‘remember’ the experiences of poverty are not known,” explains Thomas McDade, professor of anthropology at Northwestern university.

“Our findings suggest that DNA methylation may play an important role, and the wide scope of the associations between SES and DNAm is consistent with the wide range of biological systems and health outcomes we know to be shaped by SES.”

The process of epigenetics does not really involve modifying the DNA sequences, but it sort of metes out chemical changes to DNA so as to reinforce or avert the reading of a sequence. The accurate mechanism that describes the action such as this is referred to as DNA methylation, where methyl groups are added to the DNA molecule, modifying the activity of a DNA segment without inflicting any change to the sequence.

Epigenetics has increasingly drawn world’s attention over the years with notable share of studies suggesting everything from love and care you received as an infant to childhood trauma you were part of can coax your body to change the structure and function of your genes. 

“There is no nature vs. nurture,” McDade adds.

Since your early life experiences can change you at a genetic level, it is 100 percent liable that your child will carry these epigenetic changes and pass on through the generations to come.

Is your child cognitively impaired? Autistic? Well, part of the blame should be gone to your forefathers. Because epigenetics plays a part in it.

Researchers were in fact surprised to see the sheer number of associations between DNA methylation and Socioeconomic status (SES) across such a large number of genes. They identified DNA methylation at more than 2500 sites affecting more than 1500 genes of participants that grew up in low SES conditions.

“This pattern highlights a potential mechanism through which poverty can have a lasting impact on a wide range of physiological systems and processes,” he says.

In the future, researchers hope to investigate the possible health consequences that arise due to differential methylation at the sites they have identified. But, they find that most of the genes has something to do with the development of the skeletal and nervous system and how our immune system responses to infection.

“These are the areas we’ll be focusing on to determine if DNA methylation is indeed an important mechanism through which socioeconomic status can leave a lasting molecular imprint on the body, with implications for health later in life,” McDade says.

The paper titled “Genome-wide analysis of DNA methylation in relation to socioeconomic status during development and early adulthood” has been published in the journal American Journal of Physical Anthropology