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October 22, 2012--------News Archive Return to: News Alerts


A fruit fly feeding. A genetic study by evolutionary biologists at the
University of Toronto using fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster)
showed that chronic food deprivation and lack of adequate
nutrition in early life had significant impact
on adult behaviour and quality of life.

Credit: Chris Reaume/University of Toronto

WHO Child Growth Charts

       

Early Life Adversity Impacts Development

It is time to put the nature versus nurture debate to rest and embrace growing evidence that it is the interaction between biology and environment in early life that influences human development

A series of studies recently published in a special edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) point out the evidence for the interplay adversity has on genes.


"Biologists used to think that our differences
are pre-programmed in our genes,
while psychologists argued that babies
are born with a blank slate and their
experience writes on it to shape them
into the adults they become.

Instead, the important question to be
asking is, 'How is our experience in
early life getting embedded in our biology?'"

Marla Sokolowski
University of Toronto behavioural geneticist


Sokolowski believes that relatively little is known about the gene-environment interplay that underlies the impact of early life adversity on adult health and behaviour.

In one of the studies in the series, Sokolowski and her colleagues found that chronic food deprivation and lack of adequate nutrition in the early life of the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster had significant impact on adult behaviour and quality of life. Fruit flies are especially useful for genetic studies because they share a surprising number of qualities with humans, are inexpensive to care for and reproduce rapidly, allowing for several generations to be studied in just a few months.

The researchers examined two types of fruit flies with variants in the foraging gene (for) known as rovers and sitters because of their different behaviours in the presence of food.

When well fed as larvae, rover adults exhibit darting exploration into open areas as they move about in search of food, while sitters show little of this behaviour. When nutritionally deprived as larvae, both rover and sitter adults exhibit darting exploration. Further, the sitters that faced nutritional adversity in early life displayed a reduction in their ability to reproduce. Rovers exhibited no effect on their reproductive fitness.


"The foraging gene makes an enzyme called PKG,
which is found in the fly as well as in most other
organisms, including humans. When faced with a
nutritionally adverse environment while growing up,
the levels of the enzyme dropped in flies.
This told us
that the foraging gene listens to its environment."
says Sokolowski.

Transgenic manipulations of PKG levels
altered darting exploration in well fed
but not nutritionally deprived flies.


The research team included James Burns, a CIFAR junior fellow in Sokolowski's lab, U of T EEB professor Locke Rowe and EEB post-doctoral fellow Nicolas Svetec, as well as colleagues from the Universitiy of British Columbia and the Université Paris-Sud. The findings are reported in the paper "Chronic food deprivation in early life affects adult exploratory and fitness traits," in the October 16, 2012 issue of the Proceedings of the Nataional Academy of Science.

The papers in the volume are authored largely by CIFAR researchers, and comprise a multidisciplinary collection of research into fields from molecular genetics, evolutionary biology and neuroscience, to social and behavioural science, epidemiology and social policy – as well as the emerging field of epigenetics, which investigates deviations in a gene's ability to produce its products (e.g. RNA, protein) caused by mechanisms other than changes in an organism's underlying DNA sequence.

The collection of papers in the volume sets out an emerging new field of the developmental science of childhood adversity, and changes conventional understanding of the early years of human life.


"This is the first volume of collected research
to provide a substantial and comprehensive
picture of the interaction between experience
and biology in the early years.

Developmental neuroscience is extraordinarily
intricate and complex, and so by approaching
this question from multiple angles we're able to
reveal a convergence on a number of themes
and set a clearer direction for future research."

Marla Sokolowski


Sokolowski is co-editor of the PNAS special edition titled "Biological Embedding of Early Social Adversity: From Fruit Flies to Kindergarteners" along with professors Tom Boyce (University of British Columbia) and Gene Robinson (University of Illinois). A University Professor in the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology (EEB), Sokolowski is the inaugural academic director of U of T's Fraser Mustard Institute for Human Development and co-director of the Experience-based Brain and Biological Development Program (EBBD) at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR).

Original article: http://media.utoronto.ca/media-releases/university-of-toronto-study-demonstrates-impact-of-adversity-on-early-life-development/