Several common adult diseases appear to be related to impaired fetal growth and this may be caused either by nutritional inadequacies at particular stages of pregnancy or by variation in alleles at specific growth loci. Little is known about the genes involved in the underlying mechanism. This review proposes that at least some of the effects have their origins at imprinted loci, genes that are unusual because they are expressed from only one parental allele. Many imprinted genes are crucial for fetal growth and determine birthweight. They can be disrupted in the early embryo by environmental influences and these disruptions can be inherited through many cell cycles into adult tissues. Their disruption can affect specific organs during fetal development and disruption could affect adult disease in a variety of direct and indirect means. Imprinted genes may be particularly vulnerable to disruption as they are functionally haploid and their expression is regulated by different means from the rest of the genome. Thus many imprinted genes provide plausible candidates for programming adult disease and warrant further study in this context.
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