Epigenetics has been a fascinating and growing field of study over recent years, especially because of the implications it has for patients using donor eggs or donor embryos. In this blog, we will give a quick explanation of what exactly epigenetics is, and the incredible connections it establishes between a donor egg or donor embryo recipient mother and her unborn child.
Essentially, scientific studies of epigenetics are revealing that the activity levels of some genes may be “dimmed” or turned up in response to other external cues from the environment - even in the womb! This means that as a donor egg or donor embryo recipient, your body still influences the gene development of your baby.
As explained by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, “epigenetics is defined as heritable changes in gene expression that do not involve a change in DNA sequence.” (1) Although the gene sequence itself cannot be altered, other environmental factors in the birth mother’s body modifies the gene expression, or what the gene does.
One of the most emotionally challenging aspects of the IVF journey for many women is that their baby will not share genetic information with them. However, recent advancements in the field of epigenetics have suggested that the birth mother plays a significant role in the way the baby’s genes develop. The 'birth mother' is defined as any woman who has given birth to a child, including mothers who are recipients of donor eggs or donor embryos.
Although certain characteristics of the baby may be genetically inherent of the egg donor, male partner, or sperm donor, the baby is still growing from the birth mother’s body. After the implantation of the embryo and throughout the entire pregnancy, every cell in the baby’s body is influenced by the birth mother’s body. All the nutrients that the mother is intaking (protein, vitamins, minerals, calcium, sugars) are being used to build the little human inside of them. The baby lives in the birth mother’s embryonic fluid for nine months, shares their blood flow, their rhythm, and the baby’s gene expression is influenced by the prenatal environment of the mother's womb.
If you are wondering, ‘will my baby look like me when using donor eggs?’ the answer is the same for women who conceive naturally, and that is that nobody knows. Every egg and every sperm carries genetic material from the entire gene pool, including parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and so on. Even after the baby is born, the manifestation of genetics is a process that lasts throughout an entire lifetime.
Although a donor egg recipient mother does not contribute maternal genes to the baby, she still has a profound influence on how the baby’s genes will perform throughout the individual’s entire life. We were fortunate enough to have donor egg mama and industry advocate Victoria Nino share her experience with the question, "will my donor egg baby look like me?"
As shared by Victoria,
"Through Biology, I gave my daughter everything she needed. She had a healthy DNA blueprint from her egg donor and her father, but my body gave her life and nurtured her into the human she is. Genetics gave her, her physical appearance (a beautiful one I might add) but epigenetics is what made her who she really is, at her core her essence, her grit, her compassion. I continue to discover new biological connections I have to her as she grows, which started the moment she was born - my mom kept talking about how much she smelled like me when I was a baby, and at the time I figured it was just a normal baby smell, but later learned it’s an actual biological connection we share."
Intuitively, we can easily wrap our heads around the idea that many aspects of a child are influenced by the way they are raised. We realize that the child develops traits and behaviors from the parents who are raising him or her. However, when we translate this concept to a fetus inside the womb, it becomes a bit more nuanced. Does the environment make that much of a difference? Aren’t the babies simply a genetic result of the genetic parents?
Well, there are scientific revelations that explain the epigenetic effect in molecules known as MicroRNAs that are secreted in the mother’s womb. These MicroRNAs act as a communication system between the mother and the growing fetus, and are responsible for fine-tuning the activity levels of genes during development and throughout life. So, epigenetics uses actual biological and chemical signals to regulate how much functional activity a gene will be putting out.
As a recipient of donor eggs or donor embryos, you are responsible for more than just the gestation and birth of the baby. You are responsible for creating a healthy environment for the embryo to develop in; an environment that will literally contribute to the way in which the baby’s genes form, which characteristics are turned on or turned off, and the future health of your child -- even as an adult.
Not only does epigenetics begin in the womb, but scientists also believe that the most fundamental impact on gene function occurs in utero. A birth mother’s womb serves as the first, and most impactful, environment for the baby. This means that the mother’s lifestyle choices from even before conception, and especially throughout gestation, have a tremendous impact on the overall health of the individual for the rest of their lives.
Several studies, including the “fetal-origin-hypothesis” by David J. Barker, suggest that the environmental factors that an individual is exposed to in utero have a direct impact on whether that individual develops major medical conditions in their adult life.(2) Essentially, the quality of life inside the womb plays a significant role in the future health of an individual.
Amazingly, the birth mother’s health before and during conception also contributes to the overall health of the baby. So, it’s best to get into a healthy lifestyle routine before conception and maintain healthy habits throughout pregnancy and beyond. The two main contributing factors are stress and nutrition. Talk to your physician to receive specific health recommendations.
Moral of the story: As a mother using donor eggs or donor embryos, you are completely involved in the development of your baby. Ultimately, it’s the combination of genetics and epigenetics that form your baby into the unique human being that they become. If you are considering using donor eggs or donor embryos, we encourage you to register today for free and instant access to browse our egg & embryo donor database and contact our team if you have any additional questions!
Donor Nexus is a world-renowned egg and embryo donation agency located in Newport Beach, California. Since our establishment in 2012, we have helped grow over 500 families using donor eggs or donor embryos. We offer an industry-leading online donor database, high success rates, flexible family-building programs, and exceptional care to egg donors and intended parents. If you have any questions, contact our team using the form at the bottom of this page and we will gladly assist you.