Why Does Puberty Trigger Us To Stop Growing? New Study Sheds Light

Young Girl Puberty

Recent research has identified a potential trigger for growth cessation in fruit flies, with implications for understanding human development. The study, focusing on the role of the steroid hormone ecdysone, suggests that growth stops not due to body size but due to a self-regulatory switch in the gland producing the hormone.

All animals start out as a single-celled organism and then start growing. At some point, of course, they need to stop getting bigger, but the process by which this happens is poorly understood. 

New research from Alexander Shingleton at the University of Illinois Chicago and colleagues identifies a potential trigger that makes fruit flies stop growing, which has implications for understanding human development. The research is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Understanding Growth Cessation in Humans and Fruit Flies

In humans, the body’s signal to stop growing happens around puberty, though it takes several more years before growth actually ceases. It is important to better understand this process in part because of recent changes in how children experience puberty. 

“We know that the onset of puberty is getting younger and younger. But in order to understand why something is changing, you need to understand how it works,” said Shingleton, a professor of biological sciences.  

So the researchers looked at fruit flies, which undergo the equivalent of puberty when they metamorphose from larvae into adults. The theory among many biologists has been that a larva stops growing when it reaches a certain body size, which triggers it to start the process of becoming an adult. Other insects do this, such as the kissing bug, which uses a “stretch receptor” in its abdomen to monitor its size, Shingleton explained.  

Discovering the Trigger for Growth Cessation in Fruit Flies

But Shingleton and his coauthors weren’t convinced that fruit flies were using such a mechanism. They hypothesized that it had something to do with a steroid hormone involved in fruit fly growth called ecdysone, which is similar to estrogen and testosterone in humans.  

The researchers used a mathematical model to explore their idea. The model showed that body size is not the trigger that causes a fruit fly to stop growing. Instead, a “stop growing” switch is triggered by the gland that makes ecdysone. In the larval stage, that gland receives lots of nutritional information that helps it decide how to regulate ecdysone production. But once ecdysone reaches a certain level, the gland no longer needs that nutritional information to make decisions and starts regulating itself. 

The researchers believe this switch from needing nutritional information is what triggers the fruit fly to stop growing. “It’s not that the fly is measuring itself in a direct way,” Shingleton said.  

He’d like to see similar studies done on mammals, which could shed more light on the growth-stopping process in humans. But Shingleton suspects that the fruit fly experience is related to ours, given that both involve similar steroid hormones and both fruit flies and humans convey nutritional information via insulin

Reference: “A dynamical model of growth and maturation in Drosophila” by John J. Tyson, Amirali Monshizadeh, Stanislav Y. Shvartsman and Alexander W. Shingleton, 28 November 2023, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2313224120

The other researchers on the project are UIC undergraduate student Amirali Monshizadeh, John Tyson at Virginia Tech, and Stanislav Shvartsman at Princeton.

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