Researchers from the University of Cambridge have made a fascinating discovery about the interaction between fetuses and their mothers during pregnancy. The study reveals that fetuses use a copy of a gene inherited from their father to influence their mother’s metabolism, essentially engaging in a nutritional tug of war. While the mother’s body wants the baby to survive, it also needs to maintain enough nutrients like glucose and fats for her own well-being, childbirth, breastfeeding, and future reproductive capabilities.
The placenta, a crucial organ that develops with the fetus, plays a central role in communicating with the mother by releasing hormones to support the baby’s growth. Through experiments with pregnant mice, scientists found that certain signaling cells in the placenta, which are influenced by genes called imprinted genes, dictate the allocation of nutrients from the mother to the fetus.
Genes controlled by the father tend to promote fetal growth, while those controlled by the mother limit it. This is believed to be a mechanism for the mother to ensure her own survival, preventing the baby from consuming all the nutrients and becoming too large and difficult to birth. Additionally, this allows the mother to potentially have future pregnancies with different fathers, promoting genetic diversity.
One essential gene studied is Igf2, which is responsible for producing a protein called ‘Insulin Like Growth Factor 2.’ When the expression of this gene is deleted from the placenta’s signaling cells, the mother doesn’t produce enough glucose and fats for the fetus, leading to improper fetal growth.
Interestingly, the researchers observed that babies with Igf2 gene defects could be either overgrown or growth-stunted. Moreover, the study revealed that the placenta’s functioning during pregnancy leaves a lasting impact on the development and lifelong health of the offspring.
Understanding how the placental hormones are controlled by Igf2 and their functions opens up possibilities for further research. Scientists hope this knowledge could lead to new strategies to enhance the health outcomes of both mothers and babies. The placenta’s remarkable role in shaping fetal development and health makes it a subject of immense interest for future studies.
Source: University of Cambridge