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J Theor Biol. 2003 Mar 7;221(1):143-61.

The thrifty phenotype hypothesis: thrifty offspring or thrifty mother?

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MRC Childhood Nutrition Research Centre, Institute of Child Health, 30 Guilford Street, London WC1N 1EH, UK.


Medical research is increasingly focusing on the contribution of nutritional programming to disease in later life. Programming is a process whereby a stimulus during a critical window of time permanently affects subsequent structure, function or developmental schedule of the organism. The thrifty phenotype hypothesis is widely used to interpret such studies, with early growth restriction seen as adaptation to environmental deprivation. However, such permanent adjustment is less beneficial than maintaining flexibility so as to recover from early growth deficits if the environment improves. Thus, the existing thrifty phenotype hypothesis fails to explain why plasticity is lost so early in development in species with extended growth. One explanation is that the developing organism simply cannot maintain phenotypic plasticity throughout the period of organ growth. This article adds a life history perspective, arguing that programming of the offspring may in some species benefit maternal fitness more than it does that of individual offspring. Closing the critical window early in development allows the preservation of maternal strategy in offspring phenotype, which in humans benefits the mother by constraining offspring demand after weaning. The offspring gains by being buffered against environmental fluctuations during the most sensitive period of development, allowing coherent adaptation of organ growth to the state of the environment. The critical window is predicted to close when offspring physiology becomes independent of maternal physiology, the timing of which depends on offspring trait. Because placental nutrition and lactation buffer against short-term environmental fluctuations, maternal strategy is predicted to derive from long-term experience, encapsulated in maternal size and nutritional status. Such an approach implies that public health programmes for improving birth weight may be more effective if they target maternal development rather than nutrition during pregnancy. Equally, aggressive nutritional management of infants born small or pre-term may induce the very environmental fluctuations that are naturally softened by maternal nutrition.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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