The effect of maternal undernutrition on ovine fetal growth

in Journal of Endocrinology
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Modifications in maternal nutrition during pregnancy can significantly disrupt fetal growth and subsequent post-natal health and survival. This study investigated the effects of undernutrition on fetal growth and the potential mechanisms involved. Tissue from pregnant ewes (n=27) was investigated on days 45, 90 and 135 of gestation (term = approximately 150 days). The thoracic girth (P<0.05) was greater in fetuses from nutrient restricted ewes on day 45 and there was also a trend towards an increased gut weight (P<0.08). By day 90, the fetal brain and thymus weight were lighter in underfed than in well-fed animals whilst the weight of the fetal ovaries was heavier (P<0.05). On day 135 the fetal heart, pancreas, thymus, gut and kidney weights were lighter in undernourished ewes (P<0.05). When expressed as a percentage of fetal body weight, significance was retained in the heart, pancreas and thymus (P<0.05). Bone growth was also affected. At day 90 the fetal femur and metatarsal were longer in underfed mothers (P<0.05). In contrast, the fetal humerus and scapula were shorter in underfed than in well-fed animals on day 135 (P<0.05) when the weight of the semitendinosus muscle (P<0.05) was also reduced. The fall in fetal glucose (P<0.1), insulin (P<0.01) and IGF-I (P<0.01) levels in underfed ewes on day 135 may have compromised fetal growth. Fetal plasma IGF binding protein-2 also increased between days 90 and 135 in underfed ewes (P<0.03), whilst levels were unaltered in well-fed animals. Although maternal and fetal plasma IGF-I levels increased with gestation (P<0.01) and the placentome morphology altered in all ewes (P<0.05), the fall in placental mass (P<0.05), amniotic and allantoic glucose concentrations (P<0.05) and maternal plasma glucose and insulin levels (P<0.05) in underfed ewes in late gestation may have compromised fetal substrate delivery. These perturbations in fetal development may have significant implications on adult health and carcass conformation, raising important health and economic issues in medical and agricultural sectors.

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