The overall goal of our work is to better understand the effects of environmental factors acting during mammalian development on a range of intermediate and long term outcomes relevant to human health and agricultural production.
A large body of epidemiological and experimental evidence shows that early life influences play a major role in determining risks of childhood obesity and cognitive or emotional disorders, and of the later onset of heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis and other conditions. Similar phenomena affect production characteristics in pastoral farm animals. Our work addresses the key question of how and why early life events affect developmental outcomes, and will lead to new interventions and strategies for better health and improved agricultural production.
A key concept underpinning our approach is that environmental cues acting during early life may act through the processes of developmental plasticity to modify the life-course in ways that have the potential to be adaptive. The mechanisms of developmental plasticity have evolved to tune the developing organism to its later environment; however, in the mammal there are particular risks of faulty transduction of environmental cues in early development, leading to an increased risk of poor health in later life.
Our work addresses many key questions about the link between early life events and later life health and disease. How important are early environmental factors in the ecology of human disease? What is the relative contribution of environmental factors at different stages of development, from before conception through to the end of childhood, and what cues (such as nutrition) trigger altered disease risk?
At a more mechanistic level, we ask: to what extent do epigenetic processes — those that modify the structure of DNA and its associated proteins without affecting the DNA sequence — underpin developmental processes that impact on disease risk? Which regulatory genes are epigenetically modified during development? To what extent and over what periods is developmental programming reversible, and by what mechanisms?
The NRCGD’s science strategy addresses these questions through six research themes that span theoretical to applied research in developmental biology and biomedical science, and translation to clinical, agricultural and policy outcomes. Click on each theme above for more information and associated projects.