Embryonic exposure to corticosterone modifies the juvenile stress response, oxidative stress and telomere length

Proc Biol Sci. 2012 Apr 7;279(1732):1447-56. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2011.1913. Epub 2011 Nov 9.


Early embryonic exposure to maternal glucocorticoids can broadly impact physiology and behaviour across phylogenetically diverse taxa. The transfer of maternal glucocorticoids to offspring may be an inevitable cost associated with poor environmental conditions, or serve as a maternal effect that alters offspring phenotype in preparation for a stressful environment. Regardless, maternal glucocorticoids are likely to have both costs and benefits that are paid and collected over different developmental time periods. We manipulated yolk corticosterone (cort) in domestic chickens (Gallus domesticus) to examine the potential impacts of embryonic exposure to maternal stress on the juvenile stress response and cellular ageing. Here, we report that juveniles exposed to experimentally increased cort in ovo had a protracted decline in cort during the recovery phase of the stress response. All birds, regardless of treatment group, shifted to oxidative stress during an acute stress response. In addition, embryonic exposure to cort resulted in higher levels of reactive oxygen metabolites and an over-representation of short telomeres compared with the control birds. In many species, individuals with higher levels of oxidative stress and shorter telomeres have the poorest survival prospects. Given this, long-term costs of glucocorticoid-induced phenotypes may include accelerated ageing and increased mortality.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution
  • Cellular Senescence / drug effects
  • Chick Embryo / drug effects*
  • Chick Embryo / physiology
  • Corticosterone / administration & dosage*
  • Female
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / drug effects
  • Models, Biological
  • Oxidative Stress / drug effects
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / drug effects
  • Stress, Physiological / drug effects
  • Telomere Homeostasis / drug effects


  • Corticosterone