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Reprod Fertil Dev. 2012;25(1):38-47. doi: 10.1071/RD12262.

Sex-specific embryonic origin of postnatal phenotypic variability.

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Departamento de Reproducción Animal, Instituto Nacional de Investigación y Tecnología Agraria y Alimentaria, Avda Puerta de Hierro no. 12, Local 10, Madrid 28040, Spain.


Preimplantation developmental plasticity has evolved in order to offer the best chances of survival under changing environments. Conversely, environmental conditions experienced in early life can dramatically influence neonatal and adult biology, which may result in detrimental long-term effects. Several studies have shown that small size at birth, which is associated with a greater risk of metabolic syndrome, is largely determined before the formation of the blastocysts because 70%-80% of variation in bodyweight at birth has neither a genetic nor environmental component. In addition, it has been reported that adult bodyweight is programmed by energy-dependent process during the pronuclear stage in the mouse. Although the early embryo has a high developmental plasticity and adapts and survives to adverse environmental conditions, this adaptation may have adverse consequences and there is strong evidence that in vitro culture can be a risk factor for abnormal fetal outcomes in animals systems, with growing data suggesting that a similar link may be apparent for humans. In this context, male and female preimplantation embryos display sex-specific transcriptional and epigenetic regulation, which, in the case of bovine blastocysts, expands to one-third of the transcripts detected through microarray analysis. This sex-specific bias may convert the otherwise buffered stochastic variability in developmental networks in a sex-determined response to the environmental hazard. It has been widely reported that environment can affect preimplantation development in a sex-specific manner, resulting in either a short-term sex ratio adjustment or in long-term sex-specific effects on adult health. The present article reviews current knowledge about the natural phenotypic variation caused by epigenetic mechanisms and the mechanisms modulating sex-specific changes in phenotype during early embryo development resulting in sex ratio adjustments or detrimental sex-specific consequences for adult health. Understanding the natural embryo sexual dimorphism for programming trajectories will help understand the early mechanisms of response to environmental insults.

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