The role of developmental plasticity and epigenetics in human health

Birth Defects Res C Embryo Today. 2011 Mar;93(1):12-8. doi: 10.1002/bdrc.20198.


Considerable epidemiological, experimental and clinical data have amassed showing that the risk of developing disease in later life is dependent on early life conditions, mainly operating within the normative range of developmental exposures. This relationship reflects plastic responses made by the developing organism as an evolved strategy to cope with immediate or predicted circumstances, to maximize fitness in the context of the range of environments potentially faced. There is now increasing evidence, both in animals and humans, that such developmental plasticity is mediated in part by epigenetic mechanisms. However, recognition of the importance of developmental plasticity as an important factor in influencing later life health-particularly within the medical and public health communities-is low, and we argue that this indifference cannot be sustained in light of the growing understanding of developmental processes and the rapid rise in the prevalence of obesity and metabolic disease globally.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Epigenesis, Genetic
  • Epigenomics / methods
  • Female
  • Fetal Development*
  • Genetic Predisposition to Disease*
  • Humans
  • Maternal Nutritional Physiological Phenomena
  • Metabolic Diseases / complications
  • Obesity / complications
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Care
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects*
  • Risk Factors