Maternal food restriction is associated with the development of obesity in offspring. This study examined how maternal undernutrition in sheep affects the fetal hypothalamic glucocorticoid receptor (GR) and the appetite-regulating neuropeptides, proopiomelanocortin (POMC) and neuropeptide Y, which it regulates. In fetuses from ewes undernourished from -60 to +30 d around conception, there was increased histone H3K9 acetylation (1.63-fold) and marked hypomethylation (62% decrease) of the POMC gene promoter but no change in POMC expression. In the same group, acetylation of histone H3K9 associated with the hypothalamic GR gene was increased 1.60-fold and the GR promoter region was hypomethylated (53% decrease). In addition, there was a 4.7-fold increase in hypothalamic GR expression but no change in methylation of GR gene expression in the anterior pituitary or hippocampus. Interestingly, hypomethylation of both POMC and GR promoter markers in fetal hypothalami was also identified after maternal undernutrition from -60 to 0 d and -2 to +30 d. In comparison, the Oct4 gene, was hypermethylated in both control and underfed groups. Periconceptional undernutrition is therefore associated with marked epigenetic changes in hypothalamic genes. Increase in GR expression in the undernourished group may contribute to fetal programming of a predisposition to obesity, via altered GR regulation of POMC and neuropeptide Y. These epigenetic changes in GR and POMC in the hypothalamus may also predispose the offspring to altered regulation of food intake, energy expenditure, and glucose homeostasis later in life.
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