Phenotype-environment mismatch due to epigenetic inheritance? Programming the offspring's epigenome and the consequences of migration


Correspondence to: Dr. Kai P. Willführ, Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, Konrad-Zuse-Strasse 1, 18057 Rostock, Germany. E-mail:



It has been suggested that epigenetic inheritance is an important factor influencing mortality. We use data about the historical population of Québec (years 1670–1740) to study whether parents modify their offspring's phenotype epigenetically prior to conception in response to predicted/perceived mortality. If so, children growing up in the predicted environment enjoy a phenotype-environment-match that should lower mortality, whereas children growing up in a nonpredicted environment should have a higher mortality.


We use the large urban-rural mortality differential to capture the predicted/perceived mortality environment. We categorize children into different groups by their migration status: conceived and living in the same environment (urban or rural); conceived in one but born in another environment (urban-to-rural or rural-to-urban); and born in one but migrating to another environment. We use Kaplan-Meier survival curves and fixed effect survival models to estimate to what extent child survival up to the age of 15 depends on migration status.


Child mortality within families that moved from urban to rural areas does not depend on the child's migration status. Within families that moved to urban areas, children who were conceived and born in the rural areas exhibit the lowest mortality. This contradicts a phenotype-environment-mismatch scenario, which would result in higher rather than lower mortality.


We do not find evidence for functional (adaptive) epigenetic inheritance. Migration into an environment with lower or higher extrinsic mortality affects child mortality within the families differently than predicted by the concept of epigenetic inheritance. The results suggest that epigenetic inheritance may not be important for child mortality among migrants. Am. J. Hum. Biol. 25:318–328, 2013. © 2013 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.