Cross-fostering: Elucidating the effects of gene × environment interactions on phenotypic development

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Cross-fostering of litters from soon after birth until weaning is a valuable tool to study the ways in which gene × environment interactions program the development of neural, physiological and behavioral characteristics of mammalian species. In laboratory mice and rats, the primary focus of this review, cross-fostering of litters between mothers of different strains or treatment groups (intraspecific) or between mothers of different species (interspecific) has been conducted over the past 9 decades. Areas of particular interest have included maternal effects on emotionality, social preferences, responses to stressful stimulation, nutrition and growth, blood pressure regulation, and epigenetic effects on brain development and behavior. Results from these areas of research highlight the critical role of the postnatal maternal environment in programming the development of offspring phenotypic characteristics. In addition, experimental paradigms that have included cross-fostering have permitted investigators to tease apart prenatal versus postnatal effects of various treatments on offspring development and behavior.

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