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J Physiol. 2010 Feb 1;588(Pt 3):527-38. doi: 10.1113/jphysiol.2009.181214. Epub 2009 Nov 30.

Adaptations in placental phenotype support fetal growth during undernutrition of pregnant mice.

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Centre for Trophoblast Research, Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience, University of Cambridge, Cambridge CB2 3EG, UK.


Undernutrition during pregnancy reduces birth weight and programmes adult phenotype with consequences for life expectancy, but its effects on the phenotype of the placenta, responsible for supplying nutrients for fetal growth, remain largely unknown. Using molecular, morphological and functional analyses, placental phenotype was examined in mice during restriction of dietary intake to 80% of control from day 3 of pregnancy. At day 16, undernutrition reduced placental, but not fetal, weight in association with decreased junctional zone volume and placental expression of glucose transporter Slc2a1. At day 19, both placental and fetal weights were reduced in undernourished mice (91% and 87% of control, respectively, P < 0.01), as were the volume and surface area of the labyrinthine zone responsible for placental nutrient transfer (85% and 86%, respectively, P < 0.03). However, unidirectional materno-fetal clearance of tracer glucose was maintained and methyl-aminoisobutyric acid increased 166% (P < 0.005) per gram of undernourished placenta, relative to controls. This was associated with an 18% and 27% increased placental expression of glucose and system A amino acid transporters Slc2a1 and Slc38a2, respectively, at day 19 (P < 0.04). At both ages, undernutrition decreased expression of the placental specific transcript of the Igf2 gene by 35% (P < 0.01), although methylation of its promoter was unaffected. The placenta, therefore, adapts to help maintain fetal growth when its own growth is compromised by maternal undernutrition. Consequently, placental phenotype is responsive to environmental conditions and may help predict the risk of adult disease programmed in utero.

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