Cortisol-treated zebrafish embryos develop into pro-inflammatory adults with aberrant immune gene regulation

Biol Open. 2016 Aug 15;5(8):1134-41. doi: 10.1242/bio.020065.


Chronic early-life stress increases adult susceptibility to numerous health problems linked to chronic inflammation. One way that this may occur is via glucocorticoid-induced developmental programming. To gain insight into such programming we treated zebrafish embryos with cortisol and examined the effects on both larvae and adults. Treated larvae had elevated whole-body cortisol and glucocorticoid signaling, and upregulated genes associated with defense response and immune system processes. In adulthood the treated fish maintained elevated basal cortisol levels in the absence of exogenous cortisol, and constitutively mis-expressed genes involved in defense response and its regulation. Adults derived from cortisol-treated embryos displayed defective tailfin regeneration, heightened basal expression of pro-inflammatory genes, and failure to appropriately regulate those genes following injury or immunological challenge. These results support the hypothesis that chronically elevated glucocorticoid signaling early in life directs development of a pro-inflammatory adult phenotype, at the expense of immunoregulation and somatic regenerative capacity.

Keywords: Chronic stress; Developmental programming; Glucocorticoid; Immune system; RNA-seq; Zebrafish.