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Abstract

Many plants and animals are capable of developing in a variety of ways, forming characteristics that are well adapted to the environments in which they are likely to live. In adverse circumstances, for example, small size and slow metabolism can facilitate survival, whereas larger size and more rapid metabolism have advantages for reproductive success when resources are more abundant. Often these characteristics are induced in early life or are even set by cues to which their parents or grandparents were exposed. Individuals developmentally adapted to one environment may, however, be at risk when exposed to another when they are older. The biological evidence may be relevant to the understanding of human development and susceptibility to disease. As the nutritional state of many human mothers has improved around the world, the characteristics of their offspring—such as body size and metabolism—have also changed. Responsiveness to their mothers' condition before birth may generally prepare individuals so that they are best suited to the environment forecast by cues available in early life. Paradoxically, however, rapid improvements in nutrition and other environmental conditions may have damaging effects on the health of those people whose parents and grandparents lived in impoverished conditions. A fuller understanding of patterns of human plasticity in response to early nutrition and other environmental factors will have implications for the administration of public health.

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Acknowledgements

This article resulted from an interdisciplinary meeting held in Palazzo Cattaneo ala Ponzone, Cremona, Italy in April 2003. We thank P. R. Imperiale for his encouragement and hospitality.

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Affiliations

  1. Sub-Department of Animal Behaviour, University of Cambridge, High Street, Madingley, Cambridge CB3 8AA, UK

    • Patrick Bateson
  2. MRC Environmental Epidemiology Unit, Southampton General Hospital, University of Southampton, SO16 6YD, UK

    • David Barker
    •  & Keith Godfrey
  3. Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge CB2 3EJ, UK

    • Timothy Clutton-Brock
  4. Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies, 9 Old Calcutta Rd, Barrackpore, Kolkata 700123, India

    • Debal Deb
  5. Departimento di Fisiologia Vegetale, Università di Udine, via del Cotonificio 108, 33100 Udine, Italy

    • Bruno D'Udine
  6. Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies, University of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge CB2 3DZ, UK

    • Robert A. Foley
    •  & Marta Mirazón Lahr
  7. Liggins Institute and National Research Centre for Growth and Development, University of Auckland, Private Bag 92019, New Zealand

    • Peter Gluckman
  8. University of Newcastle, School of Clinical Medical Sciences-Gerontology, Henry Wellcome Laboratory for Biogerontology Research, Institute for Ageing and Health, Newcastle upon Tyne NE4 6BE, UK

    • Tom Kirkwood
  9. Department of Mathematics, University of Bristol, University Walk, Bristol BS8 1TW, UK

    • John McNamara
  10. Division of Environmental & Evolutionary Biology, Graham Kerr Building, Glasgow University, Glasgow G12 8QQ, UK

    • Neil B. Metcalfe
    •  & Patricia Monaghan
  11. Department of Zoology, University of Otago, PO Box 56, Dunedin, New Zealand

    • Hamish G. Spencer
  12. Department of Biology, Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut 06459-0170, USA

    • Sonia E. Sultan

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Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Patrick Bateson.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/nature02725

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