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Suzy S J Hur, Jennifer E Cropley, and Catherine M Suter

Parental health or exposures can affect the lifetime health outcomes of offspring, independently of inherited genotypes. Such ‘epigenetic’ effects occur over a broad range of environmental stressors, including defects in parental metabolism. Although maternal metabolic effects are well documented, it has only recently been established that that there is also an independent paternal contribution to long-term metabolic health. Both paternal undernutrition and overnutrition can induce metabolic phenotypes in immediate offspring, and in some cases, the induced phenotype can affect multiple generations, implying inheritance of an acquired trait. The male lineage transmission of metabolic disease risk in these cases implicates a heritable factor carried by sperm. Sperm-based transmission provides a tractable system to interrogate heritable epigenetic factors influencing metabolism, and as detailed here, animal models of paternal programming have already provided some significant insights. Here, we review the evidence for paternal programming of metabolism in humans and animal models, and the available evidence on potential underlying mechanisms. Programming by paternal metabolism can be observed in multiple species across animal phyla, suggesting that this phenomenon may have a unique evolutionary significance.