The idea that a maternal stimulus or insult at a sensitive period of fetal development could have long-term effects on an individual is termed “Fetal Programming.” In evolutionary terms, this phenomenon is likely to reflect the benefits of fetal developmental flexibility during gestation, which may protect it from death in response to a maternal insult, but may have negative implications on its health, growth efficiency and longevity later in life.
Dr. David Barker, at Southampton University in England, championed the concept of prenatal programming of the fetus. Barker and his colleagues studied birth records of babies born in the United Kingdom and related different maternal stresses to the weight and physical characteristics of their babies at birth to the subsequent health status of these offspring in later life. They found that maternal undernutrition during the first half of pregnancy, followed by adequate nutrition to term, resulted in babies of normal birth weight, which were proportional longer and thinner than normal. This early fetal undernutrition resulted in an increased incidence of health problems experienced by these individuals as adults, which included: obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease. Further, women who were nutrient deprived themselves during early fetal development gave birth to babies who also experienced significant health problems in later life. These data suggest an “epigenetic” transmission of these in utero programmed effects from one generation to the next. In this process, changes in the in utero environment can permanently alter gene expression patterns, altering phenotype, without affecting genetic make-up. While the concept of fetal programming is well accepted by the medical community, agricultural scientists are just beginning to study this phenomenon in livestock species, and very little is known about the specific mechanisms involved.
- Evaluate the impacts of maternal stress in livestock species on the subsequent health, growth efficiency, reproductive performance and carcass quality of their progeny.
- Utilize the results of these animal studies to improve the health and well-being of human infants.