Preterm Birth in Evolutionary Context: a Predictive Adaptive Response

Thomas Williams, Amanda Drake

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Preterm birth is a significant public health problem worldwide, leading to substantial mortality in the newborn period, and a considerable burden of complications longer term, for affected infants and their carers. The fact that it is so common, and rates vary between different populations, raising the question of whether in some circumstances it might be an adaptive trait. In this review, we outline some of the evolutionary explanations put forward for preterm birth. We specifically address the hypothesis of the predictive adaptive response, setting it in the context of the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease, and explore the predictions that this hypothesis makes for the potential causes and consequences of preterm birth. We describe how preterm birth can be triggered by a range of adverse environmental factors, including nutrition, stress and relative socioeconomic status. Examining the literature for any associated longer-term phenotypic changes, we find no strong evidence for a marked temporal shift in the reproductive life-history trajectory, but more persuasive evidence for a re-programming of the cardiovascular and endocrine system, and a range of effects on neurodevelopment. Distinguishing between preterm birth as a predictive, rather than immediate adaptive response will depend on the demonstration of a positive effect of these alterations in developmental trajectories on reproductive fitness.
Original languageEnglish
Article number20180121
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Early online date25 Feb 2019
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 25 Feb 2019


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