STANFORD, Calif. - Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine have uncovered the first clues about the ancient origins of a mother's intricate lifeline to her unborn baby, the placenta, which delivers oxygen and nutrients critical to the baby's health.
The evidence suggests the placenta of humans and other mammals evolved from the much simpler tissue that attached to the inside of eggshells and enabled the embryos of our distant ancestors, the birds and reptiles, to get oxygen.
"The placenta is this amazing, complex structure and it's unique to mammals, but we've had no idea what its evolutionary origins are," said Julie Baker, PhD, assistant professor of genetics. Baker is senior author of the study, which will be published in the May issue of Genome Research.
The placenta grows inside the mother's uterus and serves as a way of exchanging gas and nutrients between mother and fetus; it is expelled from the mother's body after the birth of a baby. It is the only organ to develop in adulthood and is the only one with a defined end date, Baker said, making the placenta of interest to people curious about how tissues and organs develop.
Beyond being a biological curiosity, the placenta also plays a role in the health of both the mother and the baby. Some recent research also suggests that the placenta could be a key barrier in preventing or allowing molecules to pass to the unborn baby that influence the baby's disease risk well into adulthood.
"The placenta seems to be critical for fetal health and maternal heath," Baker said. Despite its major impact, almost nothing was known about how the placenta evolved or how it functions.
Baker and Kirstin Knox, graduate student and the study's first author, began addressing the question of the placenta's evolution by determining which genes are active in cells of the placenta throughout pregnancy in mice.
They found that the placenta develops in t
|Contact: Mitzi Baker|
Stanford University Medical Center