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Am J Hum Biol. 2007 Jan-Feb;19(1):1-19.

Early life events and their consequences for later disease: a life history and evolutionary perspective.

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  • 1Liggins Institute, University of Auckland, and National Research Centre for Growth and Development, Private Bag 92019, Auckland, New Zealand.


Biomedical science has little considered the relevance of life history theory and evolutionary and ecological developmental biology to clinical medicine. However, the observations that early life influences can alter later disease risk--the "developmental origins of health and disease" (DOHaD) paradigm--have led to a recognition that these perspectives can inform our understanding of human biology. We propose that the DOHaD phenomenon can be considered as a subset of the broader processes of developmental plasticity by which organisms adapt to their environment during their life course. Such adaptive processes allow genotypic variation to be preserved through transient environmental changes. Cues for plasticity operate particularly during early development; they may affect a single organ or system, but generally they induce integrated adjustments in the mature phenotype, a process underpinned by epigenetic mechanisms and influenced by prediction of the mature environment. In mammals, an adverse intrauterine environment results in an integrated suite of responses, suggesting the involvement of a few key regulatory genes, that resets the developmental trajectory in expectation of poor postnatal conditions. Mismatch between the anticipated and the actual mature environment exposes the organism to risk of adverse consequences-the greater the mismatch, the greater the risk. For humans, prediction is inaccurate for many individuals because of changes in the postnatal environment toward energy-dense nutrition and low energy expenditure, contributing to the epidemic of chronic noncommunicable disease. This view of human disease from the perspectives of life history biology and evolutionary theory offers new approaches to prevention, diagnosis and intervention.

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