New research shows that maternal exposure to a common and ubiquitous form of industrial pollution can harm the immune system of offspring and that this injury is passed along to subsequent generations, weakening the body’s defenses against infections such as the influenza virus.

The study was led by Paige Lawrence, Ph.D., with the University of Rochester Medical Center’s (URMC) Department of Environmental Medicine and appears in the Cell Press journal iScience. The research was conducted in mice, whose immune system function is similar to humans.

“The old adage ‘you are what you eat’ is a touchstone for many aspects of human health,” said Lawrence. “But in terms of the body’s ability to fights off infections, this study suggests that, to a certain extent, you may also be what your great-grandmother ate.”

While other studies have shown that environmental exposure to pollutants can have effects on the reproductive, respiratory, and nervous system function across multiple generations, the new research shows for the first time that the immune system is impacted as well.

This multigenerational weakening of the immune system could help explain variations that are observed during seasonal and pandemic flu episodes. Annual flu vaccines provide some people more protection than others, and during pandemic flu outbreaks some people get severely ill, while others are able to fight off the infection. While age, virus mutations, and other factors can explain some of this variation, they do not fully account for the diversity of responses to flu infection found in the general population.

More at University of Rochester Medical Center.