Why you should care about plasticity.

By Peter Dearden 26/02/2014

Peter K. Dearden

In my last post I mentioned I was interested in how you get changes in the shape of an animal without a change in genetics. This process is, of course, important for animals like bees, but it is also important in our own biology. In recent years evidence has been building that suggests that our early life environment, pre-natally and perhaps even around conception, has a huge influence on our later life and health.

This idea mirrors the biology I study in bees, environmental influences affect the way genes work, leading to alternative forms, shaped or biology later in life.

The field gives this phenomenon a name; developmental plasticity. During the early life of an animal, it is thought that environmental influences, the maternal environment even post natal care, all can set biological parameters that can then lead to health or disease in later life. The data implies that your early environment may have a huge impact on your later health. If you are interested you could read (Hanson and Gluckman, 2008, Gluckman, Hanson and Mitchell, 2010) or if you want a more user-friendly version (Gluckman and Hanson  Mismatch : The Lifestyle Diseases Time-bomb).

Developmental biologists tend to avoid thinking about plasticity because, by holding the environment stable during development, they can better understand how genes influence growth and differentiation. These is a kind of mutual misunderstanding between human biologists and clinicians, who are interested in how the environment can be manipulated to improve health outcomes for people, and developmental geneticists, who want to know how genes build an organism.

A few years ago now, Prof Sir Peter Gluckman, asked me to join Gravida (or what was then, the National Research Centre for Growth and Development). This is a TEC funded Centre of Research Excellence looking at the affects of early life on health and productivity, how to identify individuals that will suffer health problems because of early life effects and how to intervene to improve human and animal health. We contribute our fundamental work on understanding how the environment interacts with the genome in bees, but work to translate that knowledge with clinicians, agricultural scientists, human biologists and more. It is an exciting collaboration, and one that has been fruitful, particularly in changing the way we approach our science.

The Centre of Research Excellence model is a great one for encouraging and supporting these collaborations, and using individual’s science in new and interesting ways. This morning I find myself writing this, while our big server crunches data from experiments that aim to discover if mechanisms for plasticity in sheep, are similar to those in bees. I can’t wait to find out!

Understanding how biology is shaped by environment is a huge challenge for science; but it turns out that it may be key to improving public health. The only way to turn that key is for collaboration across sciences that draws together multidisciplinary, enthusiatic and effective teams.

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