A new Duke University study suggests that childhood hunger could have genetic impacts that lasts for generations.
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.” Subsequent generations were actually more resilient when coping with starvation.
As the worms used in the study live in populations that exist on a boom-bust cycle, the ability to rapidly and persistently adapt phenotype to suit a diminished environment makes no doubt provides the species with some added resiliency.
In a press release, the researchers explained how their study – funded by the National Science Foundation – relates to childhood hunger:
“This study in a large number of genetically identical worms echoes a natural experiment that occurred in humans in the Netherlands during World War II. The “hunger winter” was a very cold period from November 1944 to the late spring of 1945 during which a German blockade forced the Dutch to survive on less than a third of their regular caloric intake.
“For decades afterwards, Dutch and British scientists studied the children who had been exposed to this famine in utero. These children grew smaller than the Dutch average and their children were also smaller. They also turned out to be more susceptible to diseases of metabolism including diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease.
“The hunger winter studies suggested there was an epigenetic change at work, but animal studies are needed to dig deeper into how it works, Baugh said.”
The new findings are detailed in a paper published in the journal Genetics.