Pregnant ewes were exposed chronically to thermoneutral (TN; 20+/-2 degrees C, 30% relative humidity; n=8) or hyperthermic (HT; 40+/-2 degrees C 12 h/day, 35+/-2 degrees C 12 h/day, 30% relative humidity, n=6) environments between days 37 and 93 of pregnancy. Ewes were killed following 56 days of exposure to either environment (days in treatment (dit)), corresponding to 93+/-1 day post coitus (dpc). Maternal core body temperatures (CBT) in HT ewes were significantly elevated above the TN ewes (HT; 39.86+/-0.1 degrees C vs TN; 39.20+/-0.1 degrees C; P<0.001). Both groups of animals displayed circadian CBT, though HT ewes had elevated amplitudes (HT; 0.181+/-0.002 degrees C vs TN; 0.091+/-0.002 degrees C; P<0.001) and increased phase shift constants (HT; 2100 h vs TN; 1800 h; P<0.001). Ewes exposed to chronic heat stress had significantly reduced progesterone and ovine placental lactogen (oPL) concentrations from 72 and 62 dpc respectively (P<0.05), corresponding to approximately 30 dit. However, when compared with the TN ewes, HT cotyledonary tissue oPL mRNA and protein concentrations were not significantly different (P>0.1). Prolactin concentrations rose immediately upon entry into the HT environment, reaching concentrations approximately four times that of TN ewes, a level maintained throughout the study (HT; 216.31+/-32.82 vs TN; 54. 40+/-10.0; P<0.0001). Despite similar feed intakes and euglycemia in both groups of ewes, HT fetal body weights were significantly reduced when compared with TN fetuses (HT; 514.6+/-48.7 vs TN; 703. 4+/-44.8; P<0.05), while placental weights (HT; 363.6+/-63.3 vs TN; 571.2+/-95.9) were not significantly affected by 56 days of heat exposure. Furthermore, the relationship between body weight and fetal length, the ponderal index, was significantly reduced in HT fetuses (HT; 3.01+/-0.13 vs TN; 3.57+/-0.18; P<0.05). HT fetal liver weights were also significantly reduced (HT; 27.31+/-4.73 vs TN; 45.16+/-6.16; P<0.05) and as a result, the brain/liver weight ratio was increased. This study demonstrates that chronic heat exposure lowers circulating placental hormone concentrations. The observation that PL mRNA and protein contents are similar across the two treatments, suggests that reduced hormone concentrations are the result of impaired trophoblast cell development, specifically trophoblast migration. Furthermore, the impact of heat exposure during maximal placental growth is great enough to restrict early fetal development, even before the fetal maximal growth phase (100 dpc-term). These data highlight that intrauterine growth retardation (IUGR) may result primarily from placental trophoblast cell dysfunction, and secondarily from later reduced placental size.
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