Introduction to special issueParenting

A legacy that transcends genes

Science  15 Aug 2014:
Vol. 345, Issue 6198, pp. 742-743
DOI: 10.1126/science.345.6198.742

Parents of any species pass on their DNA, but the biology of parenting and its impacts on the offspring don't end there. Animal parenting behaviors, which can include providing food, shelter, protection, and instruction, rely on sensory cues and hormone activation of neural pathways in males and females (Dulac et al., p. 765; Rilling and Young, p. 771). Faced with a changing environment and the need to adapt, parents may scale back care or defense (Royle et al., p. 776). The molecular legacy extends beyond gene transfer to include mitochondria and epigenetics (Lane et al., p. 756). Finally, the gestation and birthing processes also shape offspring, and preterm birth is now a focus of research (Romero et al., p. 760).

PHOTO: JAMI TARRIS/CORBIS

Assisted reproduction has helped millions become parents, but in vitro procedures expose the early embryo to highly unusual conditions, with possible long-term health consequences as the child ages (Servick, p. 744). In the womb, mothers can unwittingly shape their children's taste and smell preferences (Underwood, p. 750), and when a newborn begins to nurse, components of breast milk nourish an ecosystem of beneficial gut bacteria (Gura, p. 747). As a child grows, a lack of parental care can have devastating consequences for brain development (Marshall, p. 752).

Such insights will help us understand how parenting equips offspring to grow, thrive, and become parents themselves.

  • * This special issue was edited by Beverly A. Purnell, Sacha Vignieri, and Laura M. Zahn (Editorial) and Elizabeth Culotta, Elizabeth Pennisi, John Travis, and Tim Appenzeller (News).

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