Environmental factors can have strong affects on developing fetuses. In utero exposure to methylmercury is a prime example of this. A recent study in Environmental Health Perspectives addresses the question of whether or not fine particle air pollution (PM2.5) can alter the expression of genes in the developing child by crossing the placental barrier. As Christopher Coe reports in the Scientist article below, the human placenta is the lifeline of the fetus, and pollution that trespasses through the placental wall can wreak havoc. The World Health Organization now defines ambient air pollution as a worldwide public health threat. While the long-term implications of air pollution on fetal development have yet to be addressed, it seems that maternal exposure to particular matter is associated with two genes implicated in neural development of the fetus. Health professionals have yet another compelling reason to address air pollution and simultaneously engage in climate solutions. Find out how today.
Christopher Coe I August 1, 2015
My career has been devoted to studying how early life events affect development, but for many years I focused on infancy and childhood. About 25 years ago, it became clear to me, and to many others, that critical maturational processes were actually initiated well before birth. Understanding how the placenta serves as the maternal-fetal interface is key to gaining additional insight into this critically important period in our lives.
The placenta is a distinctive and defining anatomical characteristic of mammals. Composed primarily of fetal tissue, it is the conduit through which maternally produced nutrients and oxygen enter the fetus and metabolic waste products return to the mother for excretion. It also enables a developing baby to guide pregnancy, from assisting in embryo implantation to helping maintain the gravid state and instructing the mother’s body about what is needed for its well-being. Placental signaling can even calibrate the rate of fetal growth and influence the length of the pregnancy.
Despite its vital importance, the placenta remains underappreciated by many because its relevance and life span are limited to the period before birth. In humans, the placenta and umbilical cord are usually removed quickly after delivery, and in most other mammals the afterbirth is usually consumed by the mother immediately after expulsion from the uterus. To advance our knowledge of placental structure and function, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) last year launched a major research initiative called The Human Placenta Project to discover new ways to study, image, and monitor the placenta and to improve pregnancy outcomes. In addition to in vivo research, bioengineering breakthroughs are allowing scientists to use placental cells and synthetic materials to mimic placental diffusion and transport processes in ex vivo microdevices, such as the aptly named placenta-on-a-chip introduced by an international team of researchers this June. Together, these efforts will increase our understanding of how this responsive organ conveys information about both the external world and in utero conditions to the fetus.
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