Study to discover if stress is inherited

Published: 28 March 2011

Researchers from the University of Glasgow are to investigate whether stress can be passed from one generation to the next.

Researchers from the University of Glasgow are to investigate whether stress can be passed from one generation to the next.

Professor Pat Monaghan has been awarded a European Research Council grant of £1.8m to study how stress might reduce longevity in parents and in their offspring.

During the five year long project, the team, based in the University’s Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health & Comparative Medicine, will examine how living with unpredictable environmental changes accelerate ageing and reduce life expectancy.

Professor Monaghan said: “If you have ever thought that stress is killing you, you may well be right. It is known that increased levels of stress hormones have many negative health consequences, and in this new project we will be focussing on one route through which lifespan can be shortened. This route is via effects on shortening of bits of our DNA called telomeres.

“These telomeres identify and protect the ends of chromosomes, and their length is crucial. However, as individuals get older, the length of the telomeres in the cells of many body tissues gets shorter, increasing the chances of tissue failure. Anything that increases the rate at which telomeres get eroded is bad news, and exposure to environmental stress seems to be a key factor. 

“What has never been studied before is whether stress-induced changes in telomere length can be passed from one generation to the next. At this stage we simply don’t know if it is the case or not, but this grant will allow us to find out.

“We will use birds in our study because their lifespan is relatively short, but the results are likely to have wide applicability since the mechanisms involved are very similar across many different kinds of animals, including humans.

“The current pace of environmental change is such that many organisms face ever more rapid, severe and unpredictable fluctuations in their environments. A major challenge for biologists is to understand how this will influence individuals, populations and ecosystems, and over what time scale such effects will occur.

“If the negative consequences of the stress this creates are passed from one generation to the next, then the effects of even relatively short term disturbance to the environment will be very persistent and far reaching”.

This ambitious, multidisciplinary study will have important implications across a range of disciplines, from climate change through to public health.

The ERC Advanced grant is the first to be awarded to a University of Glasgow researcher.

Professor Steve Beaumont welcomed the award and praised the efforts of Professor Monaghan in securing the prestigious funding.

He said: “ERC funding is incredibly important for universities to win and I congratulate Pat on her achievement. The scheme funds real cutting edge blue sky research – it is a condition of the grant that the research is groundbreaking and highly innovative.

“There is no doubt that Pat’s work fits perfectly with the remit of an ERC grant and I would encourage other researchers in the University to consider applying for this source of funding.”

The European Research Council’s mission is to “stimulate scientific excellence by supporting and encouraging the very best, truly creative scientists ... to be adventurous and take risks in their research. The scientists are encouraged to go beyond established frontiers of knowledge and the boundaries of disciplines”.

ERC grants are awarded through open competition to projects “headed by starting and established researchers, irrespective of their origins, who are working or moving to work in Europe - the sole criterion for selection is scientific excellence.

“The aim is to recognise the best ideas, and retain and confer status and visibility to the best brains in Europe”.

For more information, contact Ray McHugh in the University of Glasgow Media Relations Office on 0141 330 3535 or email

First published: 28 March 2011

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