This Aspect of a Father's Health Can Increase his Daughter's Breast Cancer Risk

Though those of the mother have been researched, the father’s biometrics are now getting a closer look. 


Obese man turns back on fast food, chooses water instead.
Obese man turns away from fast food and toward a glass of water.

In our culture historically, fertility was the realm of women. Women are told to watch what they eat, exercise regularly, avoid alcohol, and generally take care of themselves while pregnant, even when trying to conceive. The impact of the father’s health was thought minimal. Due to this, fertility research has focused more on women’s reproductive systems than men’s, as well as the impact of their lifestyle choices on their children. But now, research on the male side of things is starting to pick up, and we are gaining more insight into infertility issues, and even health problems occurring in offspring later on, due to the father’s lifestyle.

Previous studies have shown that a mother’s weight and her diet affect her daughter’s chances of developing breast cancer. Now, a new study finds the same about fathers. A father’s obesity during conception is likely to raise his daughter’s breast cancer risk, researchers have discovered.

According to a study published in the journal Scientific Reports, obesity in the father alters the gene expression of his sperm, which could increase the risk of breast cancer in daughters. Investigators at the Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center in Washington, D.C. conducted this study, led by Sonia de Assis, Ph.D.

Breast cancer cells.

Breast cancer is the second most commonly acquired in the U.S., after melanoma. 246,660 women are projected to be diagnosed this year. Risk factors include being over age 55, having a family history of the disease, carrying certain genes or genetic mutations, obesity, alcohol abuse, and more. Now one additional item may be added to the list, a father’s obesity at the time of conception.

Studies on women have revealed that certain lifestyle choices, such as smoking or eating a poor diet, can lead to gene mutations, which may be passed on to her children. Between five to 10% of these mutated genes are inherited. There is also some evidence linking maternal obesity to such mutations, raising the risk of the child developing breast cancer later on. Even so, few studies have looked into the father’s weight and what role it played. De Assis and colleagues had moved in to help close the gap.

Breast cancer causing gene. 

They experimented on laboratory mice. There were two cohorts. One had male mice who were fed a normal diet, the control group. The other had male mice fed an obesity-promoting one. After some time, each were presented with female mice of normal weight for mating.

Soon, the pups were born and matured. Once they did, researchers rated and analyzed the female’s breast tissue. Those pups born to obese fathers developed breast tissue later than their peers, and were more likely to develop breast cancer. The scientists also examined the sperm of obese male mice. Here they found that microRNA (miRNA), molecular strands which regulate gene expression, had been altered. This same alteration was present in the breast tissue of their daughters. Epigenetics is how genes are changed to allow the body to respond better to forces in the environment. But in this case, the alteration does nothing to promote life, just the opposite.

Dr. de Assis said, "This study provides evidence that, in animals, a father's body weight at the time of conception affects both their daughter's body weight, both at birth and in childhood, as well as their risk of breast cancer later in life.” She added that although these were studies conducted on mice, other research has shown that epigenetic changes occur in the sperm of obese men compared to lean ones, giving us reason to believe it may occur in our species too. The next step is to find out whether or not this process takes place in humans. If it does, the ramifications are grave, especially considering the ongoing obesity epidemic occurring worldwide, beginning in the U.S. in 1994.

In ancient Greek mythology it was possible for humans, who committed atrocities against the gods, to become cursed, with their future progeny bearing the burden. Oedipus is an example of this. And in the Old Testament it is written that the sins of the father would be visited upon his children. Gluttony after all is one of the seven deadly sins. Had ancient societies picked up on a biological phenomenon, that certain epigenetic traits are passed down to future generations? It’s an interesting speculation, but nearly impossible to prove, at least, currently.

The takeaway is that, men and women should eat a well-balanced diet and do what they can to maintain a healthy body weight. That’s easier said than done in today’s frenetic world, where convenient and unhealthful food is offered at every turn. Nevertheless, with careful planning it can be done. And now there is more fuel to motivate those wishing to have a child to get healthy. Just remember the benefits don’t only extend to you, but your future children, allowing them a chance at a healthy life.

Want to know more about the risk factors of breast cancer? Click here: 

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source:

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source:

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source:

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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Credit: Pixabay
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