The current pace of change is such that many organisms face ever more rapid and severe fluctuations in their physical and biotic environments. A major challenge for ecologists and evolutionary biologists is in understanding how this will influence individuals, populations and ecosystems, and over what time scale such effects will occur. There is now great interest in so called 'maternal effects', which can generate rapid phenotypic responses, with both positive and negative fitness consequences in an ecological timeframe. In this project, I propose to examine a hitherto unconsidered route whereby the state of the mother alters the DNA that her offspring inherit, with profound effects on offspring reproductive performance and potential lifespan. This route is the effect of maternal state on telomeres, the DNA sequences that cap chromosomes ends; changes in the length and loss rate of telomeres could affect the longevity and reproductive output of individuals, their offspring and even grand-offspring. We still know very little about what telomere loss measurable at the cellular level actually means for organismal level performance, how it is influenced by environmental factors and intergenerational maternal effects, and how telomere dynamics relate to Darwinian fitness parameters. We lack experimental studies that track telomere loss within individuals subjected to varying environmental circumstances and relate this to organismal level outcomes for parents and offspring. I plan to address this gap in our understanding in a novel and innovative experimental programme that tests the idea that the effects of environmental stressors on senescence rates and lifespan are linked to accelerated telomere loss and that, through this route, can affect more than one generation.
Fields of science
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