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Reproduction. 2001 Oct;122(4):527-35.

Micronutrient programming of development throughout gestation.

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  • 1Scottish Agricultural College, Craibstone Estate, Bucksburn, Aberdeen AB21 9SB, UK.


Vitamins and minerals serve essential roles in cellular metabolism, maintenance and growth throughout life. They are also central components of many enzymes and transcription factors. However, the need for optimum amounts of key micronutrients at critical stages during the periovulatory period and subsequent embryonic and fetal life has become the focus of sustained research activity only recently. In addition to folic acid, the minerals zinc, iron and copper and the antioxidant vitamins A and E are of particular importance during pregnancy. Both excesses and deficiencies of these micronutrients can have profound and sometimes persistent effects on many fetal tissues and organs in the absence of clinical signs of deficiency in the mother. The consequences of micronutrient imbalance on the developing conceptus may not be apparent at the time of the nutritional insult, but may be manifest later in development. However, supplementary micronutrients provided later in gestation or during postnatal life cannot completely reverse the detrimental effects of earlier micronutrient imbalance. Importantly, deficiency of a specific micronutrient, such as zinc, during pregnancy can result in a greater incidence of fetal malformation and resorptions than general undernutrition. Given the range of micronutrients that affect development, the number of developmental stages susceptible to inappropriate micronutrient status and the diverse biochemical systems and types of tissue affected, it is challenging to propose a unifying hypothesis that could explain the effects of micronutrient imbalance on programming throughout gestation. Micronutrient imbalance can affect pregnancy outcome through alterations in maternal and conceptus metabolism, as a consequence of their essential role in enzymes and transcription factors and through their involvement in signal transduction pathways that regulate development. Micronutrient-induced disturbances in the balance between the generation of free oxygen radicals and the production of antioxidants that scavenge free radicals may provide an additional mechanistic explanation. The detrimental effects of many micronutrient deficiencies, particularly zinc and copper, can be alleviated by supplementary antioxidants, whereas deficiencies of antioxidant vitamins A and E are likely to reduce defence against free radical damage.

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