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Teratology is the study of abnormalities of physiological development. It is often thought of as the study of human congenital abnormalities, but it is much broader than that, taking in other non-birth developmental stages, including puberty; and other non-human life forms, including plants. The related term developmental toxicity includes all manifestations of abnormal development by toxic substances. These may include growth retardation, delayed mental development or other congenital disorders without any structural malformations.
As early as the 17th century, teratology referred to a discourse on prodigies and marvels of anything so extraordinary as to seem abnormal. In the 19th century, it acquired a meaning more closely 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 individuals with significant malformations. There are many pejorative terms that have historically been used to describe individuals with significant physical malformations. The term was popularized in the 1960s by 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. 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. Until the 1940s, teratologists believed that birth defects were hereditary. In 1941, the first well-documented cases of environmental agents being the cause of severe birth defects were reported.
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. These principles guide the study and understanding of teratogenic agents and their effects on developing organisms:
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.
About 3% of newborns have a "major physical anomaly", meaning a physical anomaly that has cosmetic or functional significance.
Causes of teratogenesis can broadly be classified as:
Evidence for congenital deformities found in the fossil record is studied by paleopathologists, specialists in ancient disease and injury. Fossils bearing evidence of congenital deformity are scientifically significant because they can help scientists infer the evolutionary history of life's developmental processes. For instance, because a Tyrannosaurus rex specimen has been discovered with a block vertebra, it means that vertebrae have been developing the same basic way since at least the most recent common ancestor of dinosaurs and mammals. Other notable fossil deformities include a hatchling specimen of the bird-like dinosaur, Troodon, the tip of whose jaw was twisted. Another notably deformed fossil was a specimen of the choristodere Hyphalosaurus, which had two heads- the oldest known example of polycephaly.
In botany, teratology investigates the theoretical implications of abnormal specimens. For example, the discovery of abnormal flowers—for example, flowers with leaves instead of petals, or flowers with staminoid pistils—furnished important evidence for the "foliar theory", the theory that all flower parts are highly specialised leaves.