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  • Abstract: developmental origins of health and disease x
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Amy L Winship, Sarah E Gazzard, Luise A Cullen-McEwen, John F Bertram and Karla J Hutt

The ovarian reserve of primordial follicle oocytes is formed during in utero development and represents the entire supply of oocytes available to sustain female fertility. Maternal undernutrition during pregnancy and lactation diminishes offspring ovarian reserve in rats. In mice, maternal oocyte maturation is also susceptible to undernutrition, causing impaired offspring cardiovascular function. We aimed to determine whether programming of the ovarian reserve is impacted in offspring when maternal undernutrition extends from preconception oocyte development through to weaning. C57BL6/J female mice were fed normal protein (20%) or low-protein (8%) diet during preconception, pregnancy and lactation periods. Maternal ovaries were harvested at weaning and offspring ovaries were collected at postnatal day (PN)21 and 24 weeks of age. Total follicle estimates were obtained by histologically sampling one ovary per animal (n = 5/group). There was no impact of diet on maternal follicle numbers. However, in offspring, maternal protein restriction significantly depleted primordial follicles by 37% at PN21 and 51% at 24 weeks (P < 0.05). There were no effects of diet on other follicle classes. Histological analysis showed no differences in the proportion of proliferative follicles (pH3 positive), but increased atresia (cleaved caspase-3-positive, or TUNEL-positive) was detected in ovaries of protein-restricted offspring at both ages (P < 0.05). Our data show that maternal diet during the preconception period, in utero development and early life has significant impacts on follicle endowment and markers of follicle health later in life. This highlights the need for further investigation into the importance of maternal preconception diet for offspring reproductive development and health.

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Song Zhang, Janna L Morrison, Amreet Gill, Leewen Rattanatray, Severence M MacLaughlin, David Kleemann, Simon K Walker and I Caroline McMillen

Exposure to dietary restriction during the periconceptional period in either normal or obese ewes results in increased adrenal growth and a greater cortisol response to stress in the offspring, but the mechanisms that programme these changes are not fully understood. Activation of the angiotensin type 1 receptor (AT1R) has been demonstrated to stimulate adrenal growth and steroidogenesis. We have used an embryo transfer model in the sheep to investigate the effects of exposure to dietary restriction in normal or obese mothers from before and 1 week after conception on the methylation status, expression, abundance and localisation of key components of the renin–angiotensin system (RAS) in the adrenal of post-natal lambs. Maternal dietary restriction in normal or obese ewes during the periconceptional period resulted in an increase in angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) and AT1R abundance in the absence of changes in the methylation status or mRNA expression of ACE and AT1R in the adrenal of the offspring. Exposure to maternal obesity alone also resulted in an increase in adrenal AT1R abundance. There was no effect of maternal dietary restriction or obesity on ACE2 and AT2R or on ERK, calcium/calmodulin-dependent kinase II abundance, and their phosphorylated forms in the lamb adrenal. Thus, weight loss around the time of conception, in both normal-weight and obese ewes, results in changes within the intra-adrenal RAS consistent with increased AT1R activation. These changes within the intra-adrenal RAS system may contribute to the greater adrenal stress response following exposure to signals of adversity in the periconceptional period.

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Jennifer Smith, Drewe Ferguson, Guillermo Jauregui, Martín Panarace, Mariano Medina, Sigrid Lehnert and Jonathan R Hill

Fetal development can be influenced by maternal environment in the peri-conceptional period. This study investigated the effect of maternal feed intake and psychological stress within the first 6 days after conception on embryo development and fetal growth. Superovulated ewes (n=40) were artificially inseminated with semen from one ram. Ewes were then divided into four groups (n=10): group 1 (control) was fed at maintenance level, group 2 (high) at 2× maintenance, and group 3 (low) at 0.5× maintenance on days 2–6 after conception. Group 4 (stress) was fed at maintenance level and then an intense physical and psychological stress challenge was applied for 1 h only on days 2 and 3 after conception. Embryos were recovered at day 6. A total of 113 transferable grade embryos were transferred singly into synchronized untreated recipients, while the remaining embryos (n=165) were fixed and stained for cell counts. Post-conception maternal stress or feed intake did not alter the cell count or grade of day 6 embryos. Fetuses from the stress group had longer crown-rump lengths at day 30 and longer femur length at day 58. Fetuses from the stressed and high feed groups had greater abdominal circumferences at day 85. Subsequent birth weights were not significantly different. Ewes carrying lambs from the stress treatment had shorter gestation lengths. These results show that short-term perturbations of the post-conception maternal environment have measurable effects on fetal development and gestation length.

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Bernd Fischer, Pascale Chavatte-Palmer, Christoph Viebahn, Anne Navarrete Santos and Veronique Duranthon

The renaissance of the laboratory rabbit as a reproductive model for human health is closely related to the growing evidence of periconceptional metabolic programming and its determining effects on offspring and adult health. Advantages of rabbit reproduction are the exact timing of fertilization and pregnancy stages, high cell numbers and yield in blastocysts, relatively late implantation at a time when gastrulation is already proceeding, detailed morphologic and molecular knowledge on gastrulation stages, and a hemochorial placenta structured similarly to the human placenta. To understand, for example, the mechanisms of periconceptional programming and its effects on metabolic health in adulthood, these advantages help to elucidate even subtle changes in metabolism and development during the pre- and peri-implantation period and during gastrulation in individual embryos. Gastrulation represents a central turning point in ontogenesis in which a limited number of cells program the development of the three germ layers and, hence, the embryo proper. Newly developed transgenic and molecular tools offer promising chances for further scientific progress to be attained with this reproductive model species.

Open access

Nady El Hajj, Eberhard Schneider, Harald Lehnen and Thomas Haaf

The phenomenon that adverse environmental exposures in early life are associated with increased susceptibilities for many adult, particularly metabolic diseases, is now referred to as ‘developmental origins of health and disease (DOHAD)’ or ‘Barker’ hypothesis. Fetal overnutrition and undernutrition have similar long-lasting effects on the setting of the neuroendocrine control systems, energy homeostasis, and metabolism, leading to life-long increased morbidity. There are sensitive time windows during early development, where environmental cues can program persistent epigenetic modifications which are generally assumed to mediate these gene–environment interactions. Most of our current knowledge on fetal programing comes from animal models and epidemiological studies in humans, in particular the Dutch famine birth cohort. In industrialized countries, there is more concern about adverse long-term consequences of fetal overnutrition, i.e. by exposure to gestational diabetes mellitus and/or maternal obesity which affect 10–20% of pregnancies. Epigenetic changes due to maternal diabetes/obesity may predispose the offspring to develop metabolic disease later in life and, thus, transmit the adverse environmental exposure to the next generation. This vicious cycle could contribute significantly to the worldwide metabolic disease epidemics. In this review article, we focus on the epigenetics of an adverse intrauterine environment, in particular gestational diabetes, and its implications for the prevention of complex disease.

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ME Symonds, H Budge, T Stephenson and IC McMillen

This article reviews the fetal endocrine system in sheep, a species that has a long gestation and primarily produces a singleton fetus. Attention is focused on information that is applicable to humans. The endocrinology of metabolic homeostasis in sheep fetuses is well adapted to respond to a range of metabolic challenges, including placental restriction and maternal undernutrition. A small placenta results in hypoxaemia, hypoglycaemia, reduced abundance of anabolic hormones, and fetal growth restriction. Fetuses with restricted growth are characterized by tissue-specific reductions in hormone receptor mRNA, for example mRNA for the long form of prolactin receptor is reduced in adipose tissue. In contrast, the adipose tissue of fetuses with accelerated growth, stimulated by increasing maternal nutrition in the second half of gestation, has more protein for the long form of the prolactin receptor and more uncoupling protein 1, by which large amounts of heat are generated at birth. Maternal undernutrition in early gestation, coinciding with the period of rapid placental growth, initially restricts placental growth, but when mothers are fed to requirements, a longer fetus results with a disproportionately large placenta. This nutritional manipulation replicates, in part, epidemiological findings from the Dutch famine of 1944-1945, for which the offspring are at increased risk of adult obesity.

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MT Rae, S Palassio, CE Kyle, AN Brooks, RG Lea, DW Miller and SM Rhind

Gonad development in female sheep fetuses is thought to occur in a number of key stages. The aim of this study was to determine the effects of maternal undernutrition, applied at one or more of these critical stages, on fetal ovarian development. Groups of ewes (n = 11-19) were fed rations providing either 100% (high; H) or 50% (low; L) of energy requirements for live weight maintenance during selected 'windows' during gestation. Control ewes (HH and HHH) were fed the H ration from mating until they were killed at days 50, 65 (HH) or 110 (HHH) of gestation, whereas ewes of other groups were fed the L ration for the periods between day 0 and day 30 of gestation (LH and LHH), day 31 and day 50 or 65 of gestation (HL and HLH), day 65 and day 110 of gestation (HHL) or day 0 of gestation until the animals were killed (LL and LLL). At day 50 of gestation, there was no effect of nutritional treatment on mean fetal mass but compared with HH animals, mean fetal ovarian mass was significantly lower in HL (P < 0.05) and LL (P < 0.001) animals. At day 65 of gestation, there were significantly fewer germ cells (P < 0.05) at the resting, diplotene stage of initial meiosis in LL animals than there were in HH animals, indicating delayed germ cell maturation and onset of meiosis. Qualitative assessment of proliferative cell nuclear antigen immunostaining indicated that, at day 50 of gestation, staining was located predominantly in the germ cells, whereas by day 65 of gestation, staining was confined predominantly to somatic cells. Undernutrition in each one of these windows was associated with delayed ovarian follicular development (P < 0.05-0.001) as measured by development of the granulosa cell layer at day 110 of gestation. This study demonstrates that undernutrition before and during folliculogenesis can delay fetal follicular development.

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MT Rae, SM Rhind, PA Fowler, DW Miller, CE Kyle and AN Brooks

The aim of this study was to determine the effects of maternal undernutrition, applied during physiologically relevant stages of development of the reproductive system, on reproductive development in male sheep fetuses. Groups of ewes (n = 11-19) were fed rations providing either 100% (high; H) or 50% (low; L) of metabolizable energy requirements for live weight maintenance during selected 'windows', bounded by days 0, 30, 50, 65 and 110 after mating. Ewes of control groups (HH (Expts 1 and 2) and HHH (Expt 3)) were fed the H ration from mating until they were killed at day 50 (Expt 1), day 65 (Expt 2) or day 110 (Expt 3) of gestation, whereas ewes of other groups were fed the L ration for the periods days 0-30 of gestation (LH and LHH), days 31-50 or days 31-65 of gestation (HL and HLH), days 65-110 of gestation (HHL), or day 0 to day 50, day 65 or day 110 of gestation (LL and LLL) when the animals were killed. At day 50 of gestation, there was no effect of nutritional treatment on mean fetal mass or fetal testicular mass, but there was increased expression of mRNA for steroidogenic acute regulatory protein (StAR) in the testes of LL animals (P < 0.05) compared with HH controls. Compared with HH animals, the mean plasma testosterone concentrations of LL fetuses tended to be higher, but this result did not reach significance. At day 65 of gestation there were no significant differences between treatments in mean fetal masses, testicular masses, mean plasma testosterone concentrations or StAR mRNA content. At day 110 of gestation, fetal masses in the LLL group were lower (P < 0.01) than those of control fetuses, although no differences in testicular size or fetal plasma testosterone concentrations were recorded. It is concluded that the effects of undernutrition on reproductive development of male sheep fetuses are dependent on the timing of the period of undernutrition.

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R G Lea, L P Andrade, M T Rae, L T Hannah, C E Kyle, J F Murray, S M Rhind and D W Miller

This study aimed to determine whether reduced fetal ovary folliculogenesis in ewes undernourished during early/midpregnancy is associated with altered ovarian cell proliferation and/or the expression of apoptosis-regulating genes. Groups of ewes (n = 11–19) were fed either 100% (high; H) or 50% (low; L) of metabolisable energy requirements for live-weight maintenance during selected windows of gestation. All animals were killed at days 50, 65 or 110 of gestation. Between mating and slaughter, control animals were fed the H ration, while animals of other subgroups were fed the L ration from (a) mating to slaughter at 50, 65 or 110 days; (b) 0 to 30 days; (c) 31 to 50 or 65 days; or (d), in the day 110 slaughter group only, from 66 to 110 days. Bouin’s-fixed fetal ovaries were examined for (a) Ki67 immunoexpression (proliferation) and (b) Bax and Mcl-1 (apoptosis-regulating genes) expression by in situ hybridisation (day 110) and immunohistochemistry (days 50, 65 and 110). At day 50, maternal nutrition had no effect on Ki67, predominant in germ cells, or Bax and Mcl-1, predominant in the oocytes. Restricted maternal food intake from 0 to 30 days significantly reduced staining for Ki67 in germ cells at day 65 (P < 0.05) but increased staining in granulosa cells at day 110 (P < 0.05). In animals fed the L ration for 110 days, primordial follicle Bax and Mcl-1 were significantly increased (Bax: P < 0.01; Mcl-1: P < 0.05). Granulosa cell Bax was also increased (P < 0.05). When the L ration was fed from 66 to 110 days, granulosa cell Bax (P < 0.05) and primordial follicle Mcl-1 (P < 0.01) were also significantly increased. In the fetal ovarian vasculature, animals underfed for 0–110 days had significantly elevated perivascular Mcl-1 (P < 0.001) and endothelial Bax expression (P < 0.05). Moreover, at day 110, endothelial Mcl-1 was increased by underfeeding from 0 to 30 days (P < 0.05). These data indicate that maternal undernutrition alters proliferation and the expression of apoptosis-regulating genes in the developing fetal ovary. The precise mechanism depends on the window of maternal food restriction.

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A Gonzalez-Bulnes, C Ovilo, C J Lopez-Bote, S Astiz, M Ayuso, M L Perez-Solana, R Sanchez-Sanchez and L Torres-Rovira

The effects of undernutrition during pregnancy on prenatal and postnatal development of the offspring were evaluated in sows with obesity/leptin resistance. Females were fed, from day 35 of pregnancy onwards, a diet fulfilling either 100% (group control, n=10) or 50% of the nutritional requirements (group underfed, n=10). In the control group, maternal body weight increased during pregnancy (P<0.05) while it decreased or remained steady in the underfed group. At days 75 and 100 of gestation, plasma triglycerides were lower but urea levels were higher in restricted than in control sows (P<0.05 for both). Assessment of the offspring indicated that the trunk diameter was always smaller in the restricted group (P<0.01 at day 50, P<0.005 at days 75 and 100 and P<0.0001 at birth) while head measurements were similar through pregnancy, although smaller in the restricted than in the control group at birth (P<0.05). Newborns from restricted sows were also lighter than offspring from control females (P<0.01) and had higher incidence of growth retardation (P<0.01). Afterwards, during lactation, early postnatal growth in restricted piglets was modulated by gender. At weaning, males from restricted sows were still lighter than their control counterparts (P<0.05), while females from control and underfed sows were similar. Thus, the current study indicates a gender-related differential effect in the growth patterns of the piglets, with females from restricted sows evidencing catch-up growth to neutralise prenatal retardation and reaching similar development than control counterparts.