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The aim of the present study was to investigate the mechanistic basis of protein deficiency during pregnancy in mother that is transduced to offspring. To this end, timed-pregnant Sprague–Dawley rats were fed either a control (20 % of energy from protein) or low-protein (LP, 8 % of energy from protein) diet during gestation. Tissues were collected after delivery from rat dams, and skeletal muscle was collected at postnatal day 38 from the offspring. Quantitative RT-PCR and Western blot analyses were performed to determine mRNA and protein levels. Histological analysis was performed to evaluate myofibre size. LP dams gained significantly less weight during pregnancy, developed muscle atrophy, and had significantly lower circulating threonine and histidine levels than control dams. The mRNA expression of the well-known amino acid response (AAR) pathway-related target genes was increased only in the skeletal muscle of LP dams, as well as the protein expression levels of activating transcription factor 4 (ATF4) and phosphorylated eukaryotic translation initiation factor 2α (p-eIF2α). The mRNA expression of autophagy-related genes was significantly increased in the skeletal muscle of LP dams. Moreover, the mRNA expression of genes involved in both AAR and autophagy pathways remained elevated and was memorised in the muscle of LP offspring that consumed a post-weaning control diet. Additionally, the LP diet increased an autophagy marker, microtubule-associated proteins 1A/1B light chain 3B (LC3B) protein expression in the skeletal muscle of rat dams, consistent with the initiation of autophagy. The LP diet further increased ATF4 binding at the predicted regions of AAR and autophagy pathway-related genes. Increased binding of ATF4 unveils the crucial role of ATF4 in the activation of autophagy in response to protein restriction. Our data suggest that molecular changes in maternal muscle are memorised in the offspring long after gestational protein restriction, reinforcing the role of maternal signalling in programming offspring health.
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