Cambridge scientists have identified a key signal that the fetus uses to control its supply of nutrients from the placenta in a tug-of-war between genes inherited from the father and from the mother. The study, carried out in mice, could help explain why some babies grow poorly in the womb.
‘Battle of the sexes’ begins in womb as father and mother’s genes tussle over nutrition
As the fetus grows, it needs to communicate its increasing needs for food to the mother. It receives its nourishment via blood vessels in the placenta, a specialised organ that contains cells from both baby and mother.
Between 10% and 15% of babies grow poorly in the womb, often showing reduced growth of blood vessels in the placenta. In humans, these blood vessels expand dramatically between mid and late gestation, reaching a total length of approximately 320 kilometres at term.
In a study published today in Developmental Cell, a team led by scientists at the University of Cambridge used genetically engineered mice to show how the fetus produces a signal to encourage growth of blood vessels within the placenta. This signal also causes modifications to other cells of the placenta to allow for more nutrients from the mother to go through to the fetus.
Dr Ionel Sandovici, the paper’s first author, said: “As it grows in the womb, the fetus needs food from its mum, and healthy blood vessels in the placenta are essential to help it get the correct amount of nutrients it needs.
“We’ve identified one way that the fetus uses to communicate with the placenta to prompt the correct expansion of these blood vessels. When this communication breaks down, the blood vessels don’t develop properly and the baby will struggle to get all the food it needs.”
Image: Section of mouse fetus and placenta
Credit: Ionel Sandovici
Reproduced courtesy of the University of Cambridge
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