Women exposed to a disease scare during their pregnancy are more likely to have sons who are less aggressive but with more efficient immune systems; reveal researchers at The University of Nottingham.
This study is the first of its kind to have revealed the transgenerational effect on immune response based on environmental cues - with maternal perception of disease risk in the immediate environment potentially determining offspring disease resistance and social dominance.
For the study, pregnant female mice were housed next to males infected with Babesia microti, which is a mild blood parasite causing few symptoms, but some anaemia.
The partitioned cages allowed the females to see, hear and smell their infected neighbours, but not touch them, ensuring that the disease did not spread.
Researchers then measured the effect of these 'ambient cues' on maternal physiology and behaviour, along with the social behaviour and immune response to disease challenge in the adult offspring.
The dams (female mice that had given birth) were found to have increased blood serum levels of corticosterone (a stress hormone known to have effects on foetal and new-born development) after being housed next to the infected males - double the amount found in dams housed next to a control group of males that were not infected.
The offspring of the dams exposed to infected neighbours were significantly less aggressive as adults than the control group offspring.
In the final part of the experiment, all offspring were infected with B microti to see if the ambient exposure affected their immunity.
The offspring, which had developed in the diseased environment, showed an earlier onset, peak and clearance of the infection than the offspring from the control dams.
The new study supports the existence of a 'trade off' between social dominance and disease resistance.
"It seems that the mothers in our study are priming offspring for the environment they will live in. When the risk of disease is high, improved immunity may outweigh any costs associated with reduced social dominance." said Dr Olivia Curno, who led the research.
The study is published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the Royal Society's flagship biological research journal.