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Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol. 2010 Sep;299(3):R711-22. doi: 10.1152/ajpregu.00310.2010. Epub 2010 Jul 14.

Maternal obesity and fetal metabolic programming: a fertile epigenetic soil.

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Department of Pediatrics, University of Colorado School of Medicine, Aurora, CO 80045, USA.


The incidence of obesity and overweight has reached epidemic levels in the United States and developed countries worldwide. Even more alarming is the increasing prevalence of metabolic diseases in younger children and adolescents. Infants born to obese, overweight, and diabetic mothers (even when normal weight) have increased adiposity and are at increased risk of later metabolic disease. In addition to maternal glucose, hyperlipidemia and inflammation may contribute to the childhood obesity epidemic through fetal metabolic programming, the mechanisms of which are not well understood. Pregravid obesity, when combined with normal changes in maternal metabolism, may magnify increases in inflammation and blood lipids, which can have profound effects on the developing embryo and the fetus in utero. Fetal exposure to excess blood lipids, particularly saturated fatty acids, can activate proinflammatory pathways, which could impact substrate metabolism and mitochondrial function, as well as stem cell fate, all of which affect organ development and the response to the postnatal environment. Fetal and neonatal life are characterized by tremendous plasticity and the ability to respond to environmental factors (nutrients, oxygen, hormones) by altering gene expression levels via epigenetic modifications. Given that lipids act as both transcriptional activators and signaling molecules, excess fetal lipid exposure may regulate genes involved in lipid sensing and metabolism through epigenetic mechanisms. Epigenetic regulation of gene expression is characterized by covalent modifications to DNA and chromatin that alter gene expression independent of gene sequence. Epigenetic modifications can be maintained through positive and negative feedback loops, thereby creating stable changes in the expression of metabolic genes and their main transcriptional regulators. The purpose of this article is to review current literature on maternal-fetal lipid metabolism and maternal obesity outcomes and to suggest some potential mechanisms for fetal metabolic programming in key organ systems that regulate postnatal energy balance, with an emphasis on epigenetics and the intrauterine environment.

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