Transgenerational Effects of Early Life Starvation on Growth, Reproduction, and Stress Resistance in Caenorhabditis elegans

Genetics. 2015 Sep;201(1):201-12. doi: 10.1534/genetics.115.178699. Epub 2015 Jul 16.


Starvation during early development can have lasting effects that influence organismal fitness and disease risk. We characterized the long-term phenotypic consequences of starvation during early larval development in Caenorhabditis elegans to determine potential fitness effects and develop it as a model for mechanistic studies. We varied the amount of time that larvae were developmentally arrested by starvation after hatching ("L1 arrest"). Worms recovering from extended starvation grew slowly, taking longer to become reproductive, and were smaller as adults. Fecundity was also reduced, with the smallest individuals most severely affected. Feeding behavior was impaired, possibly contributing to deficits in growth and reproduction. Previously starved larvae were more sensitive to subsequent starvation, suggesting decreased fitness even in poor conditions. We discovered that smaller larvae are more resistant to heat, but this correlation does not require passage through L1 arrest. The progeny of starved animals were also adversely affected: Embryo quality was diminished, incidence of males was increased, progeny were smaller, and their brood size was reduced. However, the progeny and grandprogeny of starved larvae were more resistant to starvation. In addition, the progeny, grandprogeny, and great-grandprogeny were more resistant to heat, suggesting epigenetic inheritance of acquired resistance to starvation and heat. Notably, such resistance was inherited exclusively from individuals most severely affected by starvation in the first generation, suggesting an evolutionary bet-hedging strategy. In summary, our results demonstrate that starvation affects a variety of life-history traits in the exposed animals and their descendants, some presumably reflecting fitness costs but others potentially adaptive.

Keywords: L1 arrest; L1 diapause; bet hedging; fitness trade-off; starvation; transgenerational.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Caenorhabditis elegans / physiology*
  • Caenorhabditis elegans Proteins / genetics*
  • Disease Resistance
  • Epigenesis, Genetic
  • Feeding Behavior
  • Female
  • Gene Expression Regulation
  • Genetic Fitness*
  • Humans
  • Larva / growth & development
  • Longevity
  • Male
  • Quantitative Trait, Heritable*
  • Stress, Physiological*


  • Caenorhabditis elegans Proteins