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J Wallace, D Bourke, P Da Silva and R Aitken

Human adolescent mothers have an increased risk of delivering low birth weight and premature infants with high mortality rates within the first year of life. Studies using a highly controlled adolescent sheep paradigm demonstrate that, in young growing females, the hierarchy of nutrient partitioning during pregnancy is altered to promote growth of the maternal body at the expense of the gradually evolving nutrient requirements of the gravid uterus and mammary gland. Thus, overnourishing adolescent dams throughout pregnancy results in a major restriction in placental mass, and leads to a significant decrease in birth weight relative to adolescent dams receiving a moderate nutrient intake. High maternal intakes are also associated with increased rates of spontaneous abortion in late gestation and, for ewes delivering live young, with a reduction in the duration of gestation and in the quality and quantity of colostrum accumulated prenatally. As the adolescent dams are of equivalent age at the time of conception, these studies indicate that nutritional status during pregnancy rather than biological immaturity predisposes the rapidly growing adolescents to adverse pregnancy outcome. Nutrient partitioning between the maternal body and gravid uterus is putatively orchestrated by a number of endocrine hormones and, in this review, the roles of both maternal and placental hormones in the regulation of placental and fetal growth in this intriguing adolescent paradigm are discussed. Impaired placental growth, particularly of the fetal component of the placenta, is the primary constraint to fetal growth during late gestation in the overnourished dams and nutritional switch-over studies indicate that high nutrient intakes during the second two-thirds of pregnancy are most detrimental to pregnancy outcome. In addition, it may be possible to alter the nutrient transport function of the growth-restricted placenta in that the imposition of a catabolic phase during the final third of pregnancy in previously rapidly growing dams results in a modest increase in lamb birth weight.

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L. M. Williams, L. T. Hannah, C. L. Adam and D. A. Bourke

Red deer (Cervus elaphus) exhibit highly seasonal rhythms in physiology and behaviour. The influence of photoperiod on the timing of these changes begins in utero where the fetus receives photoperiodic information via the diurnal pattern of maternal melatonin secretion. The potential sensitivity of deer fetuses to melatonin was ascertained by mapping specific receptors and characterizing them using 2-[125I]iodomelatonin and quantitative autoradiography in vitro. Specific binding occurred from day 31 of gestation onwards (term = 233 days) over the spinal nerves and respiratory system. At later stages of gestation binding occurred over the brain, particularly the brainstem, the pituitary gland, thyroid gland, gastrointestinal tract including the pancreas, metanephros, cochlea of the ear, spinal cord, and spinal and cranial nerves. Binding was abolished in the presence of 10−7 mol melatonin l−1 and diminished in the presence of 10−4 mol GTPγS l−1 (guanosine-5-0-(3-thiotriphosphate)), confirming that binding represented functional G-protein-coupled melatonin receptors. Characterization studies, carried out on fetal lung, revealed that binding was time-dependent, reaching equilibrium at about 3 h at room temperature (22°C), and saturable with a dissociation constant (K d) of 104 pmol l−1. This study demonstrates the presence of G-protein-coupled melatonin receptors over a wide range of tissues in red deer fetuses from early in gestation, indicating that in addition to its role in the communication of photoperiodic information to the fetus in this species, melatonin may be involved in fetal growth and development.