Mother's milk may be the first food, but it is not created equal. In humans and other mammals, researchers have found that milk composition changes depending on the infant's gender and on whether conditions are good or bad. Understanding those differences can give scientists insights into human evolution.
Researchers at Michigan State University and other institutions found that among 72 mothers in rural Kenya, women with sons generally gave richer milk (2.8 percent fat compared with 0.6 percent for daughters).* Poor women, however, favored daughters with creamier milk (2.6 versus 2.3 percent). These findings, published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology in September, echo previous work that showed milk composition varying with infant gender in gray seals and red deer and with infant gender and the mother's condition in rhesus macaques. The new study also follows findings that affluent, well-nourished moms in Massachusetts produced more energy-dense milk for male infants.
Together the studies provide support for a 40-year-old theory in evolutionary biology. The Trivers-Willard hypothesis states that natural selection favors parental investment in daughters when times are hard and in sons when times are easy. The imbalance should be greatest in polygamous societies, in which men can father offspring with multiple wives, such as the Kenyan villages. In those societies, a son can grow to be a strong, popular male with many wives and children, or he can end up with neither. Well-off parents who can afford to invest in sons should do so because their gamble could give them many grandchildren. Conversely, poor parents should not heavily invest in sons because it is unlikely to pay off—their offspring start at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. For those families, daughters are a safer bet because as long as they survive to adulthood, they are likely to produce young.
The new study is “exciting and enthralling,” says Robert Trivers, an evolutionary biologist at Rutgers University and co-author of the hypothesis, who was not involved in the recent work. “It is a Trivers-Willard effect I wouldn't have the guts to predict.”
Even beyond fat and protein, other milk components might vary in humans, says Katie Hinde, an assistant professor in human evolutionary biology at Harvard University. She has found higher levels of cortisol, a hormone that regulates metabolism, in rhesus macaque milk for male infants. Her work shows that milk differences could change infant behavior and might affect growth and development. “Only half the story is what the mom's producing,” Hinde says. “The other [half] is how the infant uses the milk.” These findings could have implications for formula, which could be tweaked to optimize development for both boys and girls.
*Editor's Note (10/24/13): The 0.6 percent amount of fat given in this sentence was later found to be in error. It was subsequently corrected by the researchers in September 2013. Their recalculated figure was 1.74 percent.