GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Inside the labs at Van Andel Institute, Heidi Lempradl, Ph.D, and her team, spend their time working with fruit flies. The major advantage is how quickly they reproduce — today’s fruit flies will be grandparents in just two weeks. That is a critical piece to Lempradl’s research of how environmental exposures now impact offspring for generations.

“We know that environmental exposures or exposure to chemicals can have an impact on the exposed generation but it has become evident in recent years that it can also be transferred through generations, so to the children of the exposed generation,” Lempradl said. “And it can increase susceptibility to certain diseases.”

Lempradl said they found out years ago that when they increased the amount of dietary sugars in the father’s diet, the offspring was more susceptible to developing obesity.

“The goal is that we translate our findings into ways to prevent disease and to create a healthier future,” Lempradl said.

One way they’ll be doing that is through an event happening at VAI on Nov. 16 from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. A Conversation About Health & the Environment will be hosted by Carol Van Andel and the conversation with go through Lempradl’s research alongside Dr. Yvonne Fondufe-Mittendorf.

“I look at the present generation, and Heidi [Lempradl] looks at the future,” Fondufe-Mittendorf said.

Fondufe-Mittendorf has studied the environmental impacts that chronic exposure to certain chemicals can have on the body. The doctors who work at VAI have focused on the impact arsenic exposure can have on developing certain diseases, like cancer.

“Most of the time we think, I have cancer, I’ve just inherited it from my parents. Or, I have cancer, I’ve done something really, really bad. But it’s not really that,” Fondufe-Mittendorf said. “Simple things that we’re constantly being exposed to, that’s the environment in which we live in, right? I think knowledge is key. If we can understand that some of the things we do could be detrimental, not for us, but the generations down the line, that’s critical.”

Part of Fondufe-Mittendorf’s conversation will talk about how arsenic seems to change how DNA is folded in a cell which can alter when and how often a cell is exposed to cancer-causing genes. And the groundbreaking possibility that zinc may play a part in prevention.

“The zinc that helps this protein to bind onto DNA and helps to fold the DNA, we see that it displaces the zinc and inserts itself in there. When it does that, the protein is no longer able to bind and so if it’s no longer able to bind that means there’s no correct confirmation of your DNA that’s packaged into your cell. Which means that in some cases, genes that you don’t want to be expressed like your oncogenes, would then be expressed, ” Dr. Fondufe-Mittendorf said. “So what we are trying to do in the lab, could simple zinc supplement help with a situation like that? I mean, if we find that, that would be really, really interesting.”

Learn more about A Conversation About Health & the Environment, here.