The goal of the major Finnish project, undertaken by the University of Turku, is to cast a new light on the perennial "heritage vs environment" debate by the immediate effects of epigenetic heritage, in other words, non-genetic influences that impact several generations later by way of sex cells, national broadcaster Yle reported.
On a more concrete level, the study seeks to establish whether the physical effects of parents' habits, such as drinking and smoking, will be passed down directly to following generations.
"We know that it occurs in animals, but if we can show that epigenetic inheritance occurs in humans too, it will be of great importance for scientific thinking as well as for preventing disease," Professor Olli Raitakari of the University of Turku told Yle, venturing that the research could result in a revolutionary discovery for transgenerational inheritance.
In Finland, epigenetic research originated in the field of cardiovascular disease research, after Finnish men were found to top corresponding statistics in the 1970s.
Research on concomitant cardiovascular factors began with approximately 3,600 children in 1980 and continued for several years. Today, the test subjects are between 40 and 50 years old and have their own children. By contrast, their grandparents are on average 75 years old, which gives researchers a unique chunk of data encompassing 13,000 people and spanning three generations.
Raitakari's research group has received a grant of €2.5 million ($3.7 million) from the European Research Council, which is enough for data collection and sampling. However, additional funding will still be needed to cover the analysis of all the samples, as the total cost of the project is estimated at €13 million ($16.7 million). According to Raitakari, the sheer scientific importance of the research almost guarantees the extra funding.
According to Professor Raitakari, future fathers may abstain from drinking or smoking as soon as they start trying to get pregnant, which is a common practice among today's mothers.
"Our theory is that predispositions can be transferred to the next generation via sperm. If that is the case, men should stop smoking and drinking before having children, otherwise their offspring may be adversely affected," Raitakari explained.
Last week, the first invitation letters were sent out. Field research will be carried out in 2018 and 2019 in the five cities where the original cardiovascular research took place. The first conclusive research results are expected to be in by 2020. According to Yle, it has the potential of resulting in a Nobel Prize.