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Q Rev Biol. 2013 Jun;88(2):97-116.

Boots for Achilles: progesterone's reduction of cholesterol is a second-order adaptation.

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Center for Behavior, Evolution, and Culture, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Los Angeles Los Angeles, California 90095-1553, USA. DORSAAMIR@GMAIL.COM


Progesterone and cholesterol are both vital to pregnancy. Among other functions, progesterone downregulates inflammatory responses, allowing for maternal immune tolerance of the fetal allograft. Cholesterol a key component of cell membranes, is important in intracellular transport, cell signaling, nerve conduction, and metabolism Despite the importance of each substance in pregnancy, one exercises an antagonistic effect on the other, as periods of peak progesterone correspond with reductions in cholesterol availability, a consequence of progesterone's negative effects on cholesterol biosynthesis. This arrangement is understandable in light of the threat posed by pathogens early in pregnancy. Progesterone-induced immunomodulation entails increased vulnerability to infection, an acute problem in the first trimester, when fetal development is highly susceptible to insult. Many pathogens rely on cholesterol for cell entry, egress, and replication. Progesterone's antagonistic effects on cholesterol thus partially compensate for the costs entailed by progesterone-induced immunomodulation. Among pathogens to which the host's vulnerability is increased by progesterone's effects, approximately 90% utilize cholesterol, and this is notably true of pathogens that pose a risk during pregnancy. In addition to having a number of possible clinical applications, our approach highlights the potential importance of second-order adaptations, themselves a consequence of the lack of teleology in evolutionary processes.

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