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Facial features influenced by mother's diet during pregnancy

A fascinating study conducted by an international team of scientists has recently found that an individual’s distinctive facial features might be significantly influenced by their mother’s dietary choices during pregnancy, specifically the consumption of protein-rich foods. 

This research suggests that the variety in human appearances, including skull shape and nasal cartilage, can be traced back to the womb, where genes are activated by nutritional factors.

Development of craniofacial skeletal structures

“The development of craniofacial skeletal structures is fascinatingly complex and elucidation of the underlying mechanisms will not only provide novel scientific insights, but also help develop more effective clinical approaches to the treatment and/or prevention of the numerous congenital craniofacial malformations,” wrote the researchers.

“To this end, we performed a genome-wide analysis of RNA transcription from non-coding regulatory elements by CAGE-sequencing of the facial mesenchyme of human embryos and cross-checked the active enhancers thus identified against genes, identified by GWAS for the normal range human facial appearance.”

Shaping facial features during embryonic development

The experts explored how the gene complex known as ‘mTORC1’ plays a pivotal role in shaping facial features during embryonic development. The analyses revealed that a diet high in protein during pregnancy can enhance the activity of the mTORC1 genes, thereby ‘fine-tuning’ the baby’s facial characteristics. 

This can influence various aspects of a child’s appearance, such as the length and width of the nose, the shape of the cheeks, and the prominence of the jawline.

Noticeable differences among siblings

While it’s understood that the fundamental aspects of a human face are inherited from parents, there are often noticeable differences among siblings and even among identical twins. 

These subtle variations have long intrigued scientists, and the current study offers new insights, suggesting that the mother’s diet plays a crucial role in determining these unique facial traits.

Spectrum of facial features 

“We found that modulation of the level of protein in the maternal diet regulates mTORC1 activity, resulting in subtle but distinct changes in the craniofacial shape of the embryos,” the researchers explained. 

This modulation leads to a “spectrum” of facial features, indicating a nuanced interplay between diet, genetics, and embryonic development.

High protein diet linked to more pronounced facial features

In experiments involving pregnant mice and fish, changes in the mothers’ diets were observed to alter mTORC1 signaling within the womb, subsequently affecting the facial features of their offspring. 

Specifically, diets high in protein were linked to more pronounced facial features, such as enlarged jaws and thicker nasal cartilage, whereas lower protein intake resulted in more slender and pointed facial characteristics.

Adaptive advantages to offspring

This dietary influence on facial development may confer certain adaptive advantages to offspring, depending on their environmental context. For example, in some fish species, offspring born to mothers on low-nutrition diets tend to have longer, thinner noses – an attribute that could be advantageous in environments where food is scarce, aiding in foraging for food.

“A key aspect of most social communication between humans is facial recognition1. Accordingly, congenital craniofacial malformations, including cleft palate, craniosynostosis, and craniofacial skeletal hypoplasia, which together account for more than one-third of all congenital birth defects, can have a profound influence on social interactions,” wrote the study authors.  

“From an evolutionary perspective, the viscerocranium harbors vital structures such as the feeding apparatus and supports sensory organs. Its precise sculpting and inheritable reproducibility are of unequivocal importance for survival.”

Study implications and valuable insights

The implications of this study extend beyond the scientific curiosity of why we look the way we do, suggesting that maternal nutrition can have lasting effects on offspring, potentially tailored to environmental conditions. 

“In summary, we have demonstrated here that the mTORC1 pathway modulates the embryonic shaping of craniofacial skeletal elements at the stage of chondrogenic condensations, with subsequent fine-tuning during intercalation of chondro-progenitors,” wrote the study authors. 

“Furthermore, we provide evidence for an impact of maternal protein intake during pregnancy on the shaping of fetal craniofacial cartilage.”

“These findings provide important insights into the mechanisms underlying craniofacial shaping and, potentially, the phenotypic plasticity of this process as well and, in addition, help elucidate the role of material dietary protein during pregnancy in this context.”

The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.


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