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Throughout the living world, parents have many ways of gifting their offspring with information they will need to help them survive. A new study in Nature Ecology and Evolution examining the effects of exposure to predators across two generations of stickleback fish yielded a surprising insight into how such transgenerational information is used.
The study was led by Laura Stein, who began the work as a doctoral student in the laboratory of University of Illinois animal biologist Alison Bell. Stein, Bell, and doctoral student Abbas Bukhari found that when either a stickleback father or his offspring experienced the threat of predation, the offspring responded with the same adaptive strategy—developing to be smaller and more timid. Even if both generations experienced the threat, the developmental differences in size and behavior remained the same.
Results - Models - Information - Sources - Bell
"The results were not what we had predicted, because models assume that information from different sources is additive," said Bell, who is also a member of the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology in the Gene Networks in Neural & Developmental Plasticity research thene. "If, say, the developmentally plastic response is to be smaller in response to predation risk and if the generational response is to be smaller in response to predation risk, the models all assume that if those two things are combined together, they should be doubly small ... that's not what we found at all."
Bell's research group is interested in how experience (nurture) and genetic information (nature) merge to determine how animals develop and behave. To understand this research, the animal's complete set of genetic information, its genome, can be envisioned as an instruction manual. Written out in the genome's DNA is the accumulated knowledge of the past environmental challenges faced by that species, an evolved guide for what strategies might aid survival in subsequent generations.
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