To investigate this further, the research team conducted a mouse study in which they compared offspring of fathers who had sufficient folate levels to the offspring of fathers who had low folate levels.
Their findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, revealed that offspring of mice fathers who had insufficient folate levels had a 30% increase in birth defects, such as cranio-facial and spinal deformities, compared with offspring of fathers who had adequate levels of the vitamin.
Explaining the reasons behind their findings, the researchers note that there are areas of the sperm epigenome that are sensitive to lifestyle choices, particularly diet. The epigenome can influence the way in which genes are activated and how certain information is passed on to offspring.
They say that the sperm can carry a "memory" of a father's lifestyle choices and diet, and the information from a father's diet is transferred to an "epigenomic map," which can influence a child's development.