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In contemporary usage, the term teratology generally refers to disfiguring birth defects or malformations. Another term for this is dysmorphology, meaning "the study of abnormal form."


Teratology (from the Greek τέρᾰς (genitive τέρᾰτος), meaning monster, or marvel and λόγος, meaning word, speech) as early as 17th century referred to a discourse on prodigies and marvels, of anything so extraordinary as to seem abnormal. In 19th century, it acquired a meaning closer related to biological deformities, mostly in the field of botany. Currently, its most instrumental meaning is that of the medical study of teratogenesis, congenital malformations or grossly deformed individuals. Monster is a pejorative term for a grossly deformed individual, although it is interesting to note that, etymologically, this word is related to demonstration, and used to simply mean something worth looking at, for being unusual, without necessarily being pejorative.

Teratology as a medical term was popularized in the 1960s by Dr. David W. Smith of the University of Washington Medical School, one of the researchers who became known in 1973 for the discovery of Fetal alcohol syndrome.[How to reference and link to summary or text] With greater understanding of the origins of birth defects, the field of teratology now overlaps with other fields of basic science, including developmental biology, embryology, and genetics.

Teratogenesis and teratology

Birth defects are known to occur in 3-5% of all newborns.[1] They are the leading cause of infant mortality in the United States, accounting for more than 20% of all infant deaths. Seven to ten percent of all children will require extensive medical care to diagnose or treat a birth defect.[2] Although significant progress has been made in identifying etiologic causes of some birth defects, approximately 65% have no known or identifiable cause.[3]

It was previously believed that the mammalian embryo developed in the impervious uterus of the mother, protected from all extrinsic factors. However, after the thalidomide disaster of the 1960's, it became apparent and more accepted that the developing embryo could be highly vulnerable to certain environmental agents that have negligible or non-toxic effects to adult individuals.

Wilson's 6 principles

Along with this new awareness of the in utero vulnerability of the developing mammalian embryo came the development and refinement of The Six Principles of Teratology which are still applied today. These principles of teratology were put forth by Jim Wilson in 1959 and in his monograph Environment and Birth Defects.[4] These principles guide the study and understanding of teratogenic agents and their effects on developing organisms

  • Susceptibility to teratogenesis depends on the genotype of the conceptus and the manner in which this interacts with adverse environmental factors.
  • Susceptibility to teratogenesis varies with the developmental stage at the time of exposure to an adverse influence. There are critical periods of susceptibility to agents and organ systems affected by these agents.
  • Teratogenic agents act in specific ways on developing cells and tissues to initiate sequences of abnormal developmental events.
  • The access of adverse influences to developing tissues depends on the nature of the influence. Several factors affect the ability of a teratogen to contact a developing conceptus, such as the nature of the agent itself, route and degree of maternal exposure, rate of placental transfer and systemic absorption, and composition of the maternal and embryonic/fetal genotypes.
  • There are four manifestations of deviant development (Death, Malformation, Growth Retardation and Functional Defect).
  • Manifestations of deviant development increase in frequency and degree as dosage increases from the No Observable Adverse Effect Level (NOAEL) to a dose producing 100% Lethality (LD100).

Studies designed to test the teratogenic potential of environmental agents use animal model systems (e.g., rat, mouse, rabbit, dog, and monkey). Early teratologists exposed pregnant animals to environmental agents and observed the fetuses for gross visceral and skeletal abnormalities. While this is still part of the teratological evaluation procedures today, the field of Teratology is moving to a more molecular level, seeking the mechanism(s) of action by which these agents act. Genetically modified mice are commonly used for this purpose. In addition, pregnancy registries are large, prospective studies that monitor exposures women receive during their pregnancies and record the outcome of their births. These studies provide information about possible risks of medications or other exposures in human pregnancies.

Understanding how a teratogen causes its effect is not only important in preventing congenital abnormalities but also has the potential for developing new therapeutic drugs safe for use with pregnant women.

Teratology education

It is estimated that 10% of all birth defects are caused by a prenatal exposure or teratogen.[3] These exposures include, but are not limited to, medication or drug exposures, maternal infections and diseases, and environmental and occupational exposures. Teratogen-caused birth defects are potentially preventable. Studies have shown that nearly 50% of pregnant women have been exposed to at least one medication during gestation.[5] An additional study found that of 200 individuals referred for genetic counseling for a teratogenic exposure, 52% were exposed to more than one potential teratogen.[6]

Teratogenic agents

A wide range of different chemicals and environmental factors are suspected or are known to be teratogenic in humans and in animals. A selected few include:

Main article: Teratogens

Teratogenic outcomes

Exposure to teratogens can result in a wide range of structural abnormalities such as cleft lip, cleft palate, dysmelia, anencephaly, ventricular septal defect. In most cases, specific agents produce a specific teratogenic response.

See also

  • Summa izbu - a set of Mesopotamian omen texts about Teratology.
  • Congenital abnormalities
  • Carcinogen
  • Mutagen

External links


  1. Birth Defects & Genetics: Birth Defects. URL accessed on 2007-05-30.
  2. Dicke JM (1989). Teratology: principles and practice. Med. Clin. North Am. 73 (3): 567-82.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Ronan O'Rahilly, Fabiola Müller (2001). Human embryology & teratology, New York: Wiley-Liss.
  4. James G. Wilson,. Environment and Birth Defects (Environmental Science Series), London: Academic Pr.
  5. Bracken MB, Holford TR (1981). Exposure to prescribed drugs in pregnancy and association with congenital malformations. Obstetrics and gynecology 58 (3): 336-44.
  6. King CR (1986). Genetic counseling for teratogen exposure. Obstetrics and gynecology 67 (6): 843-6.
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