Nutrition Research Reviews

Review Article

Epigenetic mechanisms elicited by nutrition in early life

Roberto Berni Canania1a2 c1, Margherita Di Costanzoa1, Ludovica Leonea1, Giorgio Bedognia2a3a4, Paolo Brambillaa2a5, Stefano Cianfarania2a6, Valerio Nobilia2a7, Angelo Pietrobellia2a8 and Carlo Agostonia2a4

a1 Department of Pediatrics and European Laboratory for the Investigation of Food Induced Diseases, University of Naples ‘Federico II’, Naples, Italy

a2 ‘The Hobbit Group’

a3 Clinical Epidemiology Unit, Liver Research Center, Basovizza, Trieste, Italy

a4 Institute of Pediatrics, University of Milan, Fondazione IRCCS Cà Granda – Ospedale Maggiore Policlinico, Milan, Italy

a5 ASL Milano 2, Milan, Italy

a6 Molecular Endocrinology Unit-DPUO, Bambino Gesù Children's Hospital-‘Rina Balducci’ Center of Pediatric Endocrinology, Tor Vergata University, Rome, Italy

a7 Metabolic and Autoimmunity Liver Unit, Bambino Gesu' Children's Hospital, Rome, Italy

a8 Pediatric Unit, Verona University Medical School, Verona, Italy


A growing number of studies focusing on the developmental origin of health and disease hypothesis have identified links among early nutrition, epigenetic processes and diseases also in later life. Different epigenetic mechanisms are elicited by dietary factors in early critical developmental ages that are able to affect the susceptibility to several diseases in adulthood. The studies here reviewed suggest that maternal and neonatal diet may have long-lasting effects in the development of non-communicable chronic adulthood diseases, in particular the components of the so-called metabolic syndrome, such as insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, obesity, dyslipidaemia, hypertension, and CVD. Both maternal under- and over-nutrition may regulate the expression of genes involved in lipid and carbohydrate metabolism. Early postnatal nutrition may also represent a vital determinant of adult health by making an impact on the development and function of gut microbiota. An inadequate gut microbiota composition and function in early life seems to account for the deviant programming of later immunity and overall health status. In this regard probiotics, which have the potential to restore the intestinal microbiota balance, may be effective in preventing the development of chronic immune-mediated diseases. More recently, the epigenetic mechanisms elicited by probiotics through the production of SCFA are hypothesised to be the key to understand how they mediate their numerous health-promoting effects from the gut to the peripheral tissues.


c1 Corresponding author: Dr Roberto Berni Canani, fax +39 0815451278, email


Abbreviations: CpG, cytosine–phosphate–guanine; H3K9, histone H3 lysine 9; HDAC, histone deacetylase; IUGR, intra-uterine growth retardation; JHDM2a, JmjC-domain-containing histone demethylase 2A; miRNA, microRNAs; Pdx-1, pancreatic and duodenal homeobox 1