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Men expecting to enter fatherhood or have another baby may want to watch what they eat – a new study suggests that a man’s diet before conception can have a huge impact on the baby’s health.

The study, which observed nutrition and its effect on offspring among fruit flies, showed that a junk-filled diet among the male partner directly correlated to lower rates of survival. The results left the researchers somewhat shocked.

“We were really surprised,” said Michal Polak, a biology professor at the University of Cincinnati. “In many species, the moms do a lot of the care. So we expect there to be an effect from maternal diet on offspring because of that strong link. But it was a real surprise to find a link between paternal diet and offspring.”

But what does this have to do with HUMANS?

Just like in fruit flies, a father contributes half of a baby’s genes in humans, and researchers are only now starting to understand the important role of men’s genetic material among their offspring. In particular, new research is focusing on an area of study known as epigenetics, or the way in which your body’s cells read the genes you inherit.

Scientists now understand that changes to the way your cells interpret genes can be passed down from one generation to the next. Changes to this type of gene-reading are “less durable than actual mutations to the genetic code or DNA molecule,” Polak said.

“If it’s a dominant, deleterious mutation, it could be quickly eliminated out of a gene pool by selection. But if it’s positively selected, then it could sweep the gene pool and increase in frequency until it becomes fixed.”

The researchers turned to the unassuming fruit fly as a test subject because they share about 60 percent of human genes, making them a fitting model. They also offer other benefits.

“They reproduce quickly. You can rear a few hundred in just one of these little jars. You can have thousands of fruit flies in the same amount of space you could fit six mice,” said Joshua Benoit, who is also a professor of biology at the University of Cincinnati. “It’s a great system to work on. That’s why so many questions have been answered about them.”

To test the impact of nutrition on the flies’ offspring, researchers fed female flies the same diet each day but gave the males a wide-ranging mix of about 30 different types of food with varying levels of nutrition and different calorie levels. The researchers then had the male flies reproduce with two females in succession.

Twenty-four hours later, they counted the eggs laid by the female flies. Strikingly, they discovered that males that were emaciated or had reduced energy reserves were linked to fewer surviving embryos. Also, “embryos from the second mating were more likely to survive as their fathers’ diets improved in nutrition,” according to the research team.

“There have been a fair number of studies that suggest male nutrition does affect reproductive capacity,” Benoit said. “But the reduction in viability was a lot smaller than what we saw in the low-quality diet or may have been masked since only a single mating was assessed.”

The study appeared in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

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