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Developmental plasticity and human health


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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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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The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.

Correspondence to Patrick Bateson.

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