Virginia Hughes wrote today about some exciting results presented on Tuesday at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego.
Here’s the setup: postdoc Brian Dias and colleagues used mild shocks to make male mice fear a certain scent. Then, they allowed the mice to mate. Their offspring, which had never been through the whole scent/shock thing, showed an increased startle response when they encountered the feared smell for the first time. And this was only true of the specific smell their fathers had been made to fear. Not only did the researchers report finding this inherited fear in the offspring of the shocked mice–they also found it in the grand-offspring! Neat, right? But also, really puzzling. How could information in the fathers’ brains be transmitted to their gonads and then to their offspring? The researchers admitted they have no idea what the mechanism is at this point, although I’m sure they have lots of plans to investigate just this.
With no mechanism in mind a priori, it kind of made me wonder how the team dreamed up this experiment in the first place. And with no biologically plausible mechanism to invoke, it is a little hard to believe that the results aren’t just some sort of fluke. There’s a great blog post by Kevin Mitchell, The trouble with epigenetics, that highlights some of the problems with similar existing epigenetic research (ie learned experience being passed on to offspring, with the mechanism being shaky/nonexistent).
Lots of things presented at meetings don’t make it past the hurdle of peer review. Or they are published in greatly changed form. There is nothing wrong with that–this is one of the most important functions of scientific meetings. Putting your stuff out there with your best interpretation of what it means, and hearing from other knowledgable people about their take on your data. I guess the fate of this fascinating dataset remains to be seen.
In the meantime, responses to the announcement of these findings are blowing up the twittersphere. Hughes set up a storify so you can check them out.