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Disposable Soma Theory and the Evolution of Maternal Effects on Ageing

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Joost Van Den Heuvel



This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0).


Maternal effects are ubiquitous in nature and affect a wide range of offspring phenotypes. Recent research suggests that maternal effects also contribute to ageing, but the theoretical basis for these observations is poorly understood. Here we develop a simple model to derive expectations for (i) if maternal effects on ageing evolve; (ii) the strength of maternal effects on ageing relative to direct environmental effects; and (iii) the predicted relationships between environmental quality, maternal age and offspring lifespan. Our model is based on the disposable soma theory of ageing, and the key assumption is thus that mothers trade off their own somatic maintenance against investment in offspring. This trade-off affects the biological age of offspring at birth in terms of accumulated damage, as indicated by bio-markers such as oxidative stress or telomere length. We find that the optimal allocation between investment in maternal somatic investment and investment in offspring results in old mothers and mothers with low resource availability producing offspring with reduced life span. Furthermore, the effects are interactive, such that the strongest maternal age effects on offspring lifespan are found under low resource availability. These findings are broadly consistent with results from laboratory studies investigating the onset and rate of ageing and field studies examining maternal effects on ageing in the wild.

Publication metadata

Author(s): van den Heuvel J, English S, Uller T

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: PLoS One

Year: 2016

Volume: 11

Issue: 1

Pages: e0145544

Online publication date: 11/01/2016

Acceptance date: 04/12/2015

Date deposited: 05/04/2016

ISSN (electronic): 1932-6203

Publisher: Public Library of Science


DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0145544


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Funder referenceFunder name
Royal Society of London
Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation
259679European Union