When considering going down the path to parenthood with egg donation, many intended parents worry that a donor-conceived child may not share enough traits with them. This is a common concern and a question that we get a lot at Altrui & Apricity Egg Donation.
How do genes shape who you are?
There is no doubt that much of what makes us is genetic, yet our environment greatly influences the way we think, act and even look. Abundant research in epigenetics has shown that the prenatal environment in the womb plays a critical role in fetal development, including the immune system, metabolic functions and fetal brain development. Therefore, the maternal environment of the carrying mother is as important for the baby’s fetal and future development as the genes from the egg donor.
Do genes play a crucial role in my child’s intelligence?
The short answer is no. Unlike our appearance (such as eye or hair colour) that often depends on one gene, intelligence is a polygenic trait, meaning over 500 genes influence it. Consequently, a vast amount of factors can contribute to intelligence, which in turn requires a great amount of nurturing.
Although genes do predispose mental capacities, they do not have a final say. During various phases of their development, children require appropriate attention and responses from their caregivers to nurture their interests, experimentation, and autonomy. Think about a plant: it’s not the seed that makes the flower grow, it’s the soil that the flower has been planted in and all of the care that is dedicated to it.
Most importantly, the development of the brain and intelligence is a dynamic process that does not stop after birth and even continues throughout adulthood (insert something here about recent research into neuroplasticity?) As a result, it cannot be screened prenatally and largely depends on learning and interactions with parents, teachers and friends.
How will my genes affect my baby?
The process of regulating gene expression is known as epigenetic control. If you imagine your DNA as a book and genes within your DNA as words in that book – changing the order of words will alternate the sentence, or the expression of the story. However, these changes will not impact the book itself. So if you have a gene, it doesn’t mean it will always be expressed, because it will require specific conditions to activate it.
One of the most famous examples of epigenetic control is the Dutch Famine of 1944-1945. One of the studies investigated DNA methylation – a mechanism that controls which genes are activated or suppressed. It was found that children carried during the famine had entirely different DNA methylation patterns compared to children born before or after the famine, thus showing that foetuses adapt to the lack of nutrient supply in the uterus which limits their growth. While most research focuses on adverse environments, it is known that a healthy maternal environment will influence the child’s development in a positive way.
Other good examples of differential gene expression is twin studies. Identical twins share 100% of their DNA, but they can still be very different. It is because depending on their environment (think nutrition, weather conditions or stress levels) their genes will be activated or silenced throughout their life resulting in differences between the twins.
Conclusion: what can I do?
It is hard to tell exactly how much of a child’s personality is due to nature and how much is nurture. It is commonly agreed that both nature and nurture are inextricably linked and jointly play a part in a child’s development and behaviour.
Adopting healthy habits during pregnancy is the best way to ensure your baby’s development. This includes having a balanced diet, avoiding alcohol, maintaining optimal weight, taking prenatal vitamins, as well as monitoring your stress levels.
Ultimately, the main influence on your child’s development is going to be you, as their parent and the example that you set. You have the ability and power to shape your child’s world, through the love and opportunities you give them in life.
- Nature vs Nurture: How your genes shape who you are
- A Paths to ParentHub webinar by Becky Kearns with Dr Helen O’Neil.
One long-term study following 1,000 families with children born using IVF investigated the mental well-being of children, some of whom were biologically related to their parents, whereas others were sperm or egg donor-conceived. The results found associations among parents and children who were genetically related, but also among those who were not genetically related. Even though heritability does play an important role in many cases, the way the child learns to cope with naturally arising situations may influence their behaviour more substantially than genetics.