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.
ME Symonds, H Budge, T Stephenson and IC McMillen
IC McMillen, MB Adams, JT Ross, CL Coulter, G Simonetta, JA Owens, JS Robinson and LJ Edwards
A range of pathophysiological factors can result in a perturbation or restriction of fetal growth, and the cardiovascular, neuroendocrine and metabolic adaptations of the fetus to these stimuli will depend on their nature, timing and intensity. The critical importance of these physiological adaptations for both immediate survival and long-term health outcomes has provided an impetus for experimental studies of the nature and consequences of specific fetal adaptations to a poor intrauterine environment. This review summarizes data from recent studies that have focused on the responses of the fetal cardiovascular, sympathoadrenal, hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal and renin-angiotensin systems to experimental restriction of placental function in the sheep and discusses the consequences of these adaptations for fetal, neonatal and adult health.