Can parents' stress impact the health of future generations?

photo of Dr Britt HeidingerA new review published in Biology Letters of The Royal Society examines the long-term impacts of exposure to stressors during development. The review by Dr. Britt Heidinger, North Dakota State University, Fargo, and Dr. Mark Haussmann, Bucknell University, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, looks at whether the effect of stressors on parents lingers to impact the health of their offspring.

Studies have shown that exposure to stressors accelerates the aging process. “When parents are exposed to stressors, the lifespans of their offspring and even grand offspring are often reduced. But why this happens is not well understood,” said Heidinger. The researchers’ paper reviews evidence that telomeres might play an important role in the process.

Telomeres are highly conserved, repetitive sections of DNA at the end of chromosomes. Together with other proteins, telomeres form protective caps at chromosome ends, which function a little bit like the plastic ends on shoelaces, to protect the laces from fraying.

During cell division and in response to stressors, telomeres get shorter while protecting the other DNA on the chromosome. Once telomeres get too short, cells stop dividing and do not function properly, which is expected to contribute to a decline in tissue function with age.

“Understanding how stress in the parental generation influences the telomere dynamics of subsequent generations will be important for predicting how early adversity impacts human health and how changing environmental conditions will influence animal populations,” said Haussmann. 

The review published in Biology Letters synthesizes many human and animal studies to identify current gaps in knowledge and recommend new avenues for discovery.

“There is evidence in humans, other mammals, and birds that parental stress exposure has a negative impact on the telomeres of their offspring,” said Heidinger. “However, these effects can vary among developmental stages, among individuals, and among tissues within individuals and we need to know more about what causes these differences.”

Dr. Britt Heidinger, assistant professor of biological sciences, joined NDSU in 2013. She received her doctorate degree in evolution, ecology and behavior from Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, and a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Minnesota, Duluth. She also served as a National Science Foundation postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Glasgow, United Kingdom. Her research has been published in Behavioral Ecology, Proceedings of the Royal Society, Functional Ecology, and in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Dr. Mark Haussmann, associate professor of biology, joined Bucknell in 2008. He received his doctorate degree in ecology, evolution, and organismal biology from Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa, and a bachelor’s degree in biology from the Wartburg College. Last year he served as a Leverhulme Visiting Fellow and Professor at the University of Glasgow, United Kingdom. His research has been published in Proceedings of the Royal Society, Biology Letters, and Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2015.0396, is published in Biology Letters on 4 November 2015.

About NDSU
NDSU, Fargo, North Dakota, USA, is notably listed among the top 108 U.S. public and private universities in the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education’s category of “Research Universities/Very High Research Activity.” As a student-focused, land grant, research institution, NDSU is listed in the top 100 research universities in the U.S. for R&D in agricultural sciences, chemistry, computer science, physical sciences, psychology, and social sciences, based on research expenditures reported to the National Science Foundation. 

About Biology Letters
Biology Letters is a Royal Society peer-reviewed journal that publishes short high-quality articles from across the biological sciences. The Society was founded in 1913 and is the oldest ecological society in the world. A learned society and registered charity, the BES supports ecological science through its five academic journals, other publications, events, grants and awards.

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