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PLoS By Category | Recent PLoS Articles
Science Policy

Trade-Offs in Relative Limb Length among Peruvian Children: Extending the Thrifty Phenotype Hypothesis to Limb Proportions
Published: Thursday, December 13, 2012
Author: Emma Pomeroy et al.

by Emma Pomeroy, Jay T. Stock, Sanja Stanojevic, J. Jaime Miranda, Tim J. Cole, Jonathan C. K. Wells

Background and Methods

Both the concept of ‘brain-sparing’ growth and associations between relative lower limb length, childhood environment and adult disease risk are well established. Furthermore, tibia length is suggested to be particularly plastic under conditions of environmental stress. The mechanisms responsible are uncertain, but three hypotheses may be relevant. The ‘thrifty phenotype’ assumes that some components of growth are selectively sacrificed to preserve more critical outcomes, like the brain. The ‘distal blood flow’ hypothesis assumes that blood nutrients decline with distance from the heart, and hence may affect limbs in relation to basic body geometry. Temperature adaptation predicts a gradient of decreased size along the limbs reflecting decreasing tissue temperature/blood flow. We examined these questions by comparing the size of body segments among Peruvian children born and raised in differentially stressful environments. In a cross-sectional sample of children aged 6 months to 14 years (n?=?447) we measured head circumference, head-trunk height, total upper and lower limb lengths, and zeugopod (ulna and tibia) and autopod (hand and foot) lengths.

Results

Highland children (exposed to greater stress) had significantly shorter limbs and zeugopod and autopod elements than lowland children, while differences in head-trunk height were smaller. Zeugopod elements appeared most sensitive to environmental conditions, as they were relatively shorter among highland children than their respective autopod elements.

Discussion

The results suggest that functional traits (hand, foot, and head) may be partially protected at the expense of the tibia and ulna. The results do not fit the predictions of the distal blood flow and temperature adaptation models as explanations for relative limb segment growth under stress conditions. Rather, our data support the extension of the thrifty phenotype hypothesis to limb growth, and suggest that certain elements of limb growth may be sacrificed under tough conditions to buffer more functional traits.

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