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.


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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 comprehensive textbook on evolutionary medicine: Principles of Evolutionary Medicine by Gluckman, Beedle and Hanson (Oxford University Press 2009). It explains the principles of evolutionary biology from a medical perspective and focuses on how medicine and public health might utilise evolutionary thinking. The extensively revised and updated second edition was published in March 2016 (Gluckman, Beedle, Buklijas, Low, and Hanson, Oxford University Press 2016).

Visit the Centre's website (currently being updated)

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 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)

Associate Professor Mark Vickers

Dr Allan Sheppard

Associates (external)

Professor Mark Hanson (University of Southampton, UK)
Dr Alan Beedle
Professor Joseph Nadeau (Pacific Northwest Diabetes Research Institute, USA)
Professor John Mattick (Garvan Institute, Australia)
Professor Sonia Sultan (Wesleyan University, USA)
Professor David Raubenheimer (Massey University, Albany)
Professor Hamish Spencer (University of Otago)
Tony Pleasants (AgResearch)
Professor Graeme Wake (Massey University, Albany)
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

  • Evolutionary medicine and developmental epigenetics – the impact of new insights on epigenetic biology and transgenerational inheritance on evolutionary theory
  • Use of animal models to empirically test the developmental origins of health and disease hypothesis
  • 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.

life history

Selected publications

Gluckman P, Beedle A, Buklijas T, Low F, Hanson MA. Principles of Evolutionary Medicine (Second Edition). Oxford University Press, 400 pages, 2016. ISBN: 9780199663934
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Low FM, Gluckman PD. Evolutionary Medicine: Mismatch. In RM Kliman (ed), The Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Biology, Oxford: Academic Press, 2016.
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Bateson P, Gluckman P, Hanson M. The biology of developmental plasticity and the Predictive Adaptive Response hypothesis. Journal of Physiology 592: 2357, 2014.
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Hanson MA, Gluckman PD. Early developmental conditioning of later health and disease: Physiology or pathophysiology? Physiological Reviews 94: 1027, 2014.
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Carroll SP, Jorgensen PS, Kinnison MT, Bergstrom CT, Denison RF, Gluckman P, Smith TB, Strauss SS, Tabashnik BE. Applying evolutionary biology to address global challenges. Science 346: 1245993, 2014.
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Buklijas T, Gluckman PD. From Evolution and Medicine to Evolutionary Medicine. In Ruse M (ed), The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Darwin and Evolutionary Thought, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp 505-514, 2013.
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Bateson P and Gluckman P. Plasticity, Robustness, Development and Evolution. Cambridge University Press, 156 pages, 2011. ISBN: 9780521736206
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Gluckman PD and Bergstrom CT. Evolutionary biology within medicine: a perspective of growing value. BMJ 343: d7671, 2011
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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
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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
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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
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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
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Gluckman PD and Hanson MA. Mismatch – why our world no longer fits our bodies, (1st edn), Oxford, Oxford University press, 304 pages, 2006.
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Gluckman PD and Hanson MA. Living with the past: evolution, development, and patterns of disease. Science 305: 5691, 1733-1736, 2004
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