Developmental plasticity: Bridging research in evolution and human health.

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Early life experiences can have profound and persistent effects on traits expressed throughout the life course, with consequences for later life behavior, disease risk, and mortality rates. The shaping of later life traits by early life environments, known as 'developmental plasticity', has been well-documented in humans and non-human animals, and has consequently captured the attention of both evolutionary biologists and researchers studying human health. Importantly, the parallel significance of developmental plasticity across multiple fields presents a timely opportunity to build a comprehensive understanding of this phenomenon. We aim to facilitate this goal by highlighting key outstanding questions shared by both evolutionary and health researchers, and by identifying theory and empirical work from both research traditions that is designed to address these questions. Specifically, we focus on: (i) evolutionary explanations for developmental plasticity, (ii) the genetics of developmental plasticity and (iii) the molecular mechanisms that mediate developmental plasticity. In each section, we emphasize the conceptual gains in human health and evolutionary biology that would follow from filling current knowledge gaps using interdisciplinary approaches. We encourage researchers interested in developmental plasticity to evaluate their own work in light of research from diverse fields, with the ultimate goal of establishing a cross-disciplinary understanding of developmental plasticity.






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Lea, Amanda J, Jenny Tung, Elizabeth A Archie and Susan C Alberts (2017). Developmental plasticity: Bridging research in evolution and human health. Evolution, medicine, and public health, 2017(1). pp. 162–175. 10.1093/emph/eox019 Retrieved from

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Jenny Tung

Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology

Susan C. Alberts

Robert F. Durden Distinguished Professor of Biology

Research in the Alberts Lab investigates the evolution of social behavior, particularly in mammals, with a specific focus on the social behavior, demography, life history, and behavioral endocrinology of wild primates. Our main study system is the baboon population in Amboseli, Kenya, one of the longest-running studies of wild primates in the world, ongoing since 1971.

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