Early Life Starvation Leads To Epigenetic Changes That Are Passed Down For Generations, Research On Worms Finds

Early life starvation can lead to epigenetic changes that persist for multiple generations, according to a new research from Duke University.

To be more specific — third-generation nematode worms still show signs of having survived famine. This represents what Duke University biologist Ryan Baugh has termed: a “bet-hedging strategy.”

DNA double helix

As the worms used in the study live in populations that exist on a boom-bust cycle, the ability to rapidly and persistly adapt phenotype to suit a diminished environment makes no doubt provides the species with some added resiliency.

A recent press release provides more:

Baugh and his Duke team starved thousands of C. elegans worms for one or eight days at the first stage of larval development after hatching. When feeding was resumed, the worms that had starved longer grew more slowly, and ended up smaller and less fertile. They also proved more susceptible to a second bout of starvation.

The starved worms also had offspring that were smaller, fewer and less fertile. However, these children and grandchildren of famine turned out to be more resistant to starvation and a heat-tolerance test. More of them were also male instead of the usual hermaphroditic, self-fertilizing form.

In their natural conditions, it appears the worms are able to increase their growth rate and fertility in times of plenty and then to turn these traits back down in hard times. “They have a memory of famine,” Baugh said. The net result is “a combination of fitness costs and benefits that unfolds over generations,” the authors wrote.

The new findings are detailed in a paper published in the journal Genetics.

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