Developmental origins of health and disease: brief history of the approach and current focus on epigenetic mechanisms

Semin Reprod Med. 2009 Sep;27(5):358-68. doi: 10.1055/s-0029-1237424. Epub 2009 Aug 26.


"Barker's hypothesis" emerged almost 25 years ago from epidemiological studies of birth and death records that revealed a high geographic correlation between rates of infant mortality and certain classes of later adult deaths as well as an association between birthweight and rates of adult death from ischemic heart disease. These observations led to a theory that undernutrition during gestation was an important early origin of adult cardiac and metabolic disorders due to fetal programming that permanently shaped the body's structure, function, and metabolism and contributed to adult disease. This theory stimulated interest in the fetal origins of adult disorders, which expanded and coalesced approximately 5 years ago with the formation of an international society for developmental origins of health and disease (DOHaD). Here we review a few examples of the many emergent themes of the DOHaD approach, including theoretical advances related to predictive adaptive responses of the fetus to a broad range of environmental cues, empirical observations of effects of overnutrition and stress during pregnancy on outcomes in childhood and adulthood, and potential epigenetic mechanisms that may underlie these observations and theory. Next, we discuss the relevance of the DOHaD approach to reproductive medicine. Finally, we consider the next steps that might be taken to apply, evaluate, and extend the DOHaD approach.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Animals
  • Birth Weight / genetics
  • Epigenesis, Genetic*
  • Female
  • Fetal Development / genetics*
  • Fetal Nutrition Disorders / genetics
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Developmental*
  • Genetic Predisposition to Disease*
  • Genetics, Population* / history
  • Genomic Imprinting
  • History, 20th Century
  • History, 21st Century
  • Humans
  • Infant Mortality
  • Infant Nutrition Disorders / genetics
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Models, Animal
  • Models, Genetic*
  • Myocardial Ischemia / genetics
  • Myocardial Ischemia / mortality
  • Obesity / genetics
  • Phenotype
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects
  • Primates
  • Rats
  • Reproduction / genetics*