PULLMAN, Wash. -- The Smithsonian awarded a Washington State University researcher an American Ingenuity Award, calling the man a genius for a discovery that could turn science on its head.
Dr. Michael Skinner is credited for revealing unexpected consequences of chemicals passing from generation to generation.
"What your grandmother, great grandmother was exposed to when she was pregnant could actually cause a disease in you even though you've never seen any exposure,” Skinner said. “And you're going to pass it on to your grandkids."
Skinner is challenging the main paradigm in biology - the idea that DNA determines someone’s destiny.
"So what we suggested is not that that's incorrect, but it's a small piece of a bigger story."
Evidence of the bigger story came when Skinner and his colleagues exposed pregnant rats to what many consider serious environmental toxins.
"What we found was the embryo that was exposed when it was born and grew up did have disease because of the direct exposure,” Skinner explained. "But then what we found as we bred that animal; we took it out four generations [and] the disease was still present at very high frequency. Genetics couldn't explain what was going on."
But Skinner said something called Epigenetics can explain what was happening.
He suggested toxins and other influences can change how our DNA functions along with what genes are turned on and off.
"This changes our concept of where disease comes from. It could actually have significant influences on evolution,” said Skinner. “It's still surprising."
Research Assistant Professor Eric Nillson found components in plastic had, among other things, a major impact on the rats' fertility.
“We saw that the adult animals had fewer eggs in their ovaries in the immediate first generation after exposure and the transgenerational third generation after exposure," said Nillson.
Their most recent findings focused in on DDT. Prior to its ban in 1972, DDT was a commonly used pesticide.
"They fogged towns, they sprayed it on all the crops,” said Skinner. “They basically used DDT extensively to such that I would bet there's not a person in the U.S. that was not exposed to DDT, including every pregnant woman."
When the researchers exposed pregnant rats to DDT, animals three generations later whose ancestors were exposed to DDT developed obesity.
"On exactly the same diet, and exactly the same exercise the ones that are susceptible will develop obesity," Skinner said.
Skinner believes ancestral exposure to DDT may be one factor in America's soaring obesity rate.
"We are three generations from [the] 1950's. The obesity rate in the 1950's was three percent. Today, it's over 35 percent."
The findings, however, are controversial.
Skinner says some people within the EPA and the chemical industry are very much opposed to his research.
"Had some people try and get my grants revoked through the National Institute of Health."
But despite the naysayers, both researchers are convinced.
"This really is a serious concern on a human health level," said Nillson.
When Skinner's daughter announced she was going to try and get pregnant again, he flew to her Indianapolis home with an in-house water filter in hand.
"Your biggest source of exposure is generally your water source and your nutrition," said Skinner.
And now, both Skinner and Nillson are more particular about using plastics.
"We still use plastics on occasion but I don't heat things in the microwave any more,” Nillson said. We store a lot of things in glass jars now."
The researchers said they wound continue to forge ahead, anxious for more discoveries and likely more debate.
"If there's controversy around it, it means what you're studying is very important," Skinner said.
Skinner believes pregnancy is the most vulnerable time for people to be exposed, followed by the first few years of life and puberty.
He planned to continue his tests with pregnant women. Researchers would not be exposing the women to chemicals, but would instead test levels of compounds already in a woman’s bloodstream to see if that had an impact on her children.