A highly controlled model to investigate nutrient partitioning and the control of fetal growth in the rapidly growing adolescent sheep is described. Embryos recovered from superovulated adult ewes inseminated by a single sire were transferred in singleton to the uterus of prepubertal adolescent recipients induced to ovulate at 21 weeks of age (liveweight 44.4 ± 0.38 kg). After embryo transfer, the adolescent recipients were individually offered a high (n = 28) or low (n = 20) quantity of a complete diet calculated to achieve rapid (RMG) or normal (NMG) maternal growth rates. After day 100 of gestation the feed intake of the NMG group was adjusted weekly to meet the increasing nutrient demands of the gravid uterus. The proportion of adolescent recipients initially conceiving was significantly (P < 0.01) influenced by maternal nutrient intake and was lower in the RMG (0.57) than in the NMG (0.85) group. For adolescent dams that maintained their pregnancies, liveweight gain during the first 95 days of gestation was significantly (P < 0.001) higher in the RMG compared with the NMG group (234 ± 9.5 and 75 ± 5.0 g day−1, respectively). Rapid maternal growth rates were associated with a significant reduction in both fetal and placental weights as determined when the animals were killed on day 95 of gestation (n = 3 per group) or at term. For the RMG (n = 8) and NMG (n = 11) groups, respectively, mean lamb birthweights at term were 2.74 ± 0.25 and 4.34 ± 0.27 kg (P < 0.001), while term placental weights were 263 ± 16.8 and 438 ± 44.6 g (P < 0.002). The number of fetal cotyledons per placenta and mean fetal cotyledon weight were significantly lower in RMG compared with NMG ewes (P < 0.05). Irrespective of treatment group, lamb birthweight was highly positively correlated with placental weight and both parameters were negatively correlated with maternal liveweight gain during the first 100 days of gestation. The incidence of non-infectious spontaneous abortion at 125 ± 1.3 days of gestation was higher (P < 0.001) in the RMG (4 of 12) than in the NMG (1 of 12) group. Similarly, duration of gestation for those ewes delivering live young was shorter (P < 0.01) in the RMG compared with the NMG group (140 ± 0.94 versus 143 ± 0.28 days). Colostrum yield at parturition was positively related to placental weight and significantly lower (P < 0.001) in the RMG than in the NMG group (35 ± 12.1 and 247 ± 36.2 g, respectively). Neonatal survival rates at 72 h after parturition were reduced (P < 0.05) in the RMG (38%) compared with the NMG group (91%). These data suggest that in rapidly growing adolescent ewes, the established anabolic drive to maternal tissue synthesis is maintained at the expense of the gradually evolving nutrient requirements of the gravid uterus. This results in a major restriction in placental growth and a highly significant decrease in birthweight.
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