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From early embryonic environment to sustainable food production


21 Feb 2012


Innovation & Enterprise

EU-funded networks of scientists cast light on the role of early life environment for sustainable food production at a major research workshop in Brussels

35 high-level scientists, industry experts and institutional representatives from across Europe have contributed to an international research workshop – ‘Early embryonic environment as cues of epigenetics responses for sustainable food production’ – outlining the relationship between epigenetic regulatory processes and early life environment in farm animals. In a position paper published immediately after the meeting, the group of scientists underlined the need of additional support and funding for this research field in the EU. This is pivotal to ensure long-term EU growth and economic prosperity, as well as health in the region, scientists predicted.

Early embryonic environment imprints an epigenetic memory in the individual. This memory influences important aspects of future growth, developmental capacity and health in different environmental conditions. This appears to be a general phenomenon affecting diverse species. Critical development stages have been identified as being excellent opportunities to intervene and influence not only an individual's future growth and health but, sometimes, its progenies also. Gamete cell development, early stages of conception and embryonic development in mammals, early egg and chick in poultry development and the fertilisation and larval development in fish all provide a unique time window in this respect.

The understanding that early embryonic environment can improve long-term growth and health by natural means – hence without direct genetic manipulation – represents a new ground-breaking discovery in the field of developmental biology. These discoveries have the potential to dramatically improve the sustainability and efficiency of different food producing sectors such as livestock, poultry, aquaculture and fisheries – thus benefitting human health and welfare. Intervening in the early life environment also has the potential to improve food animal welfare by avoiding detrimental environments that lead to malformations and health problems.

In order to tap the potential of the interaction between early embryonic environment and its subsequent effect on improved food production, research in this field requires stronger support. Increasing research funding to study the relationship between epigenetic regulatory processes and early life environment in farm animals will result in better control of this environment for improved food production and efficiency, food safety, product quality and animal welfare.

The results of the workshop – which took place in Brussels on 28 and 29 November 2011 – are collected in the attached position paper. It was funded by COST - European Cooperation in Science and Technology, and co-organised by members of the COST Action FA0702 ‘Maternal Interaction with Gametes and Embryos’ (GEMINI) and COST Action FA0801 ‘Critical success factors for fish larval production in European Aquaculture: a multidisciplinary network (LARVANET)’. 


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