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Reproduction. 2013 Nov 20;147(1):R15-26. doi: 10.1530/REP-13-0309. Print 2014 Jan.

The evolution of viviparity: molecular and genomic data from squamate reptiles advance understanding of live birth in amniotes.

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School of Biological Sciences, University of Sydney, A08 Heydon-Laurence Building, Sydney, New South Wales 2006, Australia.


Squamate reptiles (lizards and snakes) are an ideal model system for testing hypotheses regarding the evolution of viviparity (live birth) in amniote vertebrates. Viviparity has evolved over 100 times in squamates, resulting in major changes in reproductive physiology. At a minimum, all viviparous squamates exhibit placentae formed by the appositions of maternal and embryonic tissues, which are homologous in origin with the tissues that form the placenta in therian mammals. These placentae facilitate adhesion of the conceptus to the uterus as well as exchange of oxygen, carbon dioxide, water, sodium, and calcium. However, most viviparous squamates continue to rely on yolk for nearly all of their organic nutrition. In contrast, some species, which rely on the placenta for at least a portion of organic nutrition, exhibit complex placental specializations associated with the transport of amino acids and fatty acids. Some viviparous squamates also exhibit reduced immunocompetence during pregnancy, which could be the result of immunosuppression to protect developing embryos. Recent molecular studies using both candidate-gene and next-generation sequencing approaches have suggested that at least some of the genes and gene families underlying these phenomena play similar roles in the uterus and placenta of viviparous mammals and squamates. Therefore, studies of the evolution of viviparity in squamates should inform hypotheses of the evolution of viviparity in all amniotes, including mammals.

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