Rwandan genocide chemically altered DNA of victims and their offspring, study finds


Pregnant woman of the Tutsi ethnicity, and their offspring, who were exposed to the Rwandan genocide had chemical modifications in their DNA compared to pregnant Tutsi woman and their offspring of the same period living outside of Rwanda, according to a new study in Epigenomics.

The study was conducted at the University of South Florida College of Public Health by Professor Monica Uddin, PhD, Professor Derek Wildman, PhD, and their team of researchers. The study compared the DNA from 59 individuals who were either personally exposed to the 1994 Rwandan genocide or exposed in utero. Researchers qualified exposure as witnessing or experiencing traumatic events related to the genocide such as murder, rape, or serious attacks.

The results showed 24 significantly differentially methylated regions (DMRs) in mothers who were exposed and 16 DMRs in children exposed in utero. Many of the DNA modifications occurring in genes are associated with mental disorders like PTSD and depression. 

These results suggest trauma associated with the Rwandan genocide impacted not only the DNA of pregnant victims who were directly exposed but also their offspring who were in utero. These findings supported previous studies which showed events during pregnancy could affect children later in life.

In the future, researchers of the study, part of the Human, Heredity & Health in Africa, funded by the National Institutes of Health, plan to study a larger cohort of DNA samples, and observe the association between trauma and risk of PTSD and other mental health disorders.