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Developmental origins of non-communicable disease: Implications for research and public health

DOI: 10.1186/1476-069x-11-42

Keywords: Environmental exposure, Fetal development, Non-communicable disease, Nutritional requirements, Prenatal exposure delayed effects

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For many years biologists considered the developmental period to be controlled by a strict, hard-wired genetic program, and thus it was uncertain how it could be influenced by the environment. It is now clear that development is plastic, and that it allows the organism to respond to the surrounding environment, especially during early development when cells are differentiating and tissues are developing. This capacity is based on molecular pathways that lead to control of gene expression and induction of specific phenotypes in the absence of DNA sequence modification [1]. These pathways, as currently understood, include DNA methylation, histone covalent modification, and noncoding RNA expression. Such epigenetic modifications can be passed from one cell generation to the next and, in some cases, when germ cells are targeted, can be transgenerationally transmitted [2]. Furthermore, these changes can be cell, tissue, and sex specific, and time dependent. In many cases they may not be apparent during a latent period which may last from months to years or decades. Thus, each individual has one genome, but will hold multiple epigenomes.The ability to respond to environmental conditions can be evolutionarily advantageous by allowing fine-tuning of gene expression, likely through epigenetic mechanisms [3]. Thus, developmentally plastic processes allow the organism to adapt to changing environments in order to maintain or improve reproductive capability in part by sustaining health through the reproductive period. However, interference with these developmentally-adaptive processes may also have adverse consequences on some functions and disease risks later in life. Furthermore, these mechanisms are also sensitive to environmental stimuli other than the nutrients and physiological factors that are normative, in evolutionary terms, to the human environment. Indeed, drugs, industrial chemicals, tobacco smoke, and other environmental exposures can affect these same mechanisms l


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