Liggins Institute

Centre for Human Evolution, Adaptation and Disease

We use concepts from evolutionary and developmental biology to inform and interpret experimental and clinical research performed by the Liggins Institute and its international collaborators.



Our main interest is in evolutionary medicine, a field developing on the interface between evolutionary theory, medicine and public health. We use concepts from evolutionary and developmental biology to inform and interpret experimental and clinical research performed by the Liggins Institute and its international collaborators.

Members of our team have written the first textbook on evolutionary medicine: Principles of Evolutionary Medicine by Gluckman, Beedle and Hanson (Oxford University Press 2009).

Visit the Centre's website

Developmental plasticity

One particular focus of our research is the role of developmental plasticity in shaping adult human health. Developmental plasticity refers to the ability of an organism early in life to take signals from its environment, make predictions about the world it will grow up in and adapt its development to suit. For example, babies that grow in a pre-birth environment where nutrient supplies are scarce adapt their development for what they perceive as a poor future. Problems arise, however, when this turns out not to be the case and they find themselves in a world of fast and fatty foods.

We apply this idea of ‘the plastic human’ to interpret the increasing prevalence of metabolic disorders such as obesity and type 2 diabetes, and to encourage policy makers to take a life course approach to prevention of these diseases.

In a "Viewpoint" article published in the world’s leading general medical journal The Lancet, Professor Peter Gluckman and a team of international experts describe how understanding the processes of early life development could be used to break multigenerational cycles of chronic disease and poverty. Gluckman PD et al. 2009 Lancet 373: 1654–7

In turn, we also use insights from experimental studies to explore theoretical issues in evolutionary and developmental biology, such as how developing organisms can show both plasticity and ‘robustness’ (insensitivity to the environment).

We are also interested in the historical understandings and shifts of the relationship between development and disease, and evolution and medicine.





Associates (Liggins Institute)

Dr Mark Vickers
Dr Allan Sheppard

Associates (external)

Professor David Raubenheimer (Massey University, Albany)
Professor Hamish Spencer (University of Otago)
Tony Pleasants (AgResearch)
Dr Tanya Soboleva (AgResearch)
Professor Graeme Wake (Massey University, Albany)
Associate Professor Peter Dearden (University of Otago)
Professor Sir Patrick Bateson (University of Cambridge)
Professor Terrence Forrester (University of West Indies, Jamaica)
Associate Professor Deborah Sloboda (McMaster University Canada)


Current research projects

  • Use of animal models to empirically test the developmental origins of health and disease hypothesis
  • Changes in human reproductive aging: what are the mechanisms underlying the early onset of puberty?
  • Development of early life epigenetic markers to provide prognostic tools for prediction of adult disease
  • Nutritional adaptation in humans: lessons from early-life protein deficiency
  • History of development and disease, and evolution and medicine

Key concepts used in this research

Developmental plasticity

enables an organism to respond to environmental cues and adjust its phenotypic development to match its environment.


refers to the molecular mechanisms that cause changes in gene expression without alteration of the DNA sequence. It includes, for example, DNA methylation, which involves the (reversible) addition of a methyl group to specific DNA sites and reversible modifications of the histone proteins that surround DNA within chromosomes. Collectively, these epigenetic changes can control how actively genes are expressed. Developmental plasticity arises in part from epigenetic mechanisms.


between the environments at early life and maturity may lead to inappropriate patterns of epigenetic changes and gene expression. This may increase later life risk of developing metabolic and cardiovascular diseases.



Bateson P and Gluckman P. Plasticity, Robustness, Development and Evolution. Cambridge University Press, 156 pages, 2011. ISBN: 9780521736206
View publication

Gluckman PD and Bergstrom CT. Evolutionary biology within medicine: a perspective of growing value. BMJ 343: d7671, 2011
View publication

Gluckman PD, Low FM, Buklijas T, Hanson MA, Beedle AS. How evolutionary principles improve the understanding of human health and disease. Evolutionary Applications 4: 249, 2011
View publication 

Gluckman PD, Hanson M, Zimmet P, Forrester T. Losing the war against obesity: the need for a developmental perspective. Science Translational Medicine 3(93):93cm19, 2011
View publication 

Godfrey KM, Sheppard A, Gluckman PD, Lillycrop KA, Burdge GC et al. Epigenetic gene promoter methylation at birth is associated with child’s later adiposity. Diabetes 60: 1528, 2011
View publication 

Gluckman PD, Hanson MA, Bateson P, Beedle AS, Law CM et al. Towards a new developmental synthesis: adaptive developmental plasticity and human disease. Lancet 373: 1654–1657, 2009
View publication

Gluckman PD, Hanson MA, Buklijas T, Low FM, Beedle AS. Epigenetic mechanisms that underpin metabolic and cardiovascular diseases. Nature Reviews Endocrinology 5(7): 401–8, 2009
View publication

Gluckman PD, Beedle AS and Hanson MA. Principles of Evolutionary Medicine. Oxford University Press, 312 pages, June 2009
View publication

Gluckman PD and Hanson MA. Developmental and epigenetic pathways to obesity: an evolutionary-developmental perspective. International Journal of Obesity, 32: S62-71, 2008
View publication

Gluckman PD, Hanson MA, Cooper C, Thornburg KL. Effect of in utero and early-life conditions on adult health and disease. New England Journal of Medicine 2008; 359: 61-73.
View publication

Gluckman PD and Hanson MA. Evolution, development and timing of puberty. Trends in Endocrinology and Metabolism 17(1): 7-12, 2006.
View publication

Gluckman PD and Hanson MA. Mismatch – why our world no longer fits our bodies, (1st edn), Oxford, Oxford University press, 304 pages, 2006.
View publication

Gluckman PD and Hanson MA. Living with the past: evolution, development, and patterns of disease. Science 305: 5691, 1733-1736, 2004
View publication

Gluckman PD and Hanson MA. The Fetal Matrix – Evolution, Development and Disease. Cambridge University Press, 272 pages, November 2004. ISBN: 0521542359
View publication


Links the Centre’s website Companion website to the textbook Companion blog to the textbook Gravida - National Centre for Growth and Development