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Clues to ancestral origin of placenta emerge in Stanford study

wo distinct stages. In the first stage, which runs from the beginning of pregnancy through mid-gestation, the placental cells primarily activate genes that mammals have in common with birds and reptiles. This suggests that the placenta initially evolved through repurposing genes the early mammals inherited from their immediate ancestors when they arose more than 120 million years ago.

In the second stage, cells of the mammalian placenta switch to a new wave of species-specific genes. Mice activate newly evolved mouse genes and humans activate human genes.

It makes sense that each animal would need a different set of genes, Baker said. "A pregnant orca has different needs than a mouse and so they had to come up with different hormonal solutions to solve their problems," she said. For example, an elephant's placenta nourishes a single animal for 660 days. A pregnant mouse gestates an average of 12 offspring for 20 days. Clearly, those two pregnancies would require very different placentas.

Baker said these findings are particularly interesting given that cloned mice are at high risk of dying soon after the placenta's genetic transition takes place. "There's obviously a huge regulatory change that takes place," she said. What's surprising is that despite the dramatic shift taking place in the placenta, the tissue doesn't change in appearance.

Understanding the placenta's origins and function could prove useful. Previous studies suggest the placenta may contribute to triggering the onset of maternal labor, and is suspected to be involved in a maternal condition called pre-eclampsia, which is a leading cause of premature births.

Baker intends to follow up on this work by collaborating with Theo Palmer, PhD, associate professor of neurosurgery; Gill Bejerano, PhD, assistant professor of developmental biology, and Anna Penn, MD, PhD, assistant professor of pediatrics. Together, the group hopes to learn how the placenta protec

Contact: Mitzi Baker
Stanford University Medical Center

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