Maternal Nutrition and Fetal Development

Nutrition is the major intrauterine environmental factor that alters expression of the fetal genome and may have lifelong consequences. This phenomenon, termed “fetal programming,” has led to the recent theory of “fetal origins of adult disease.” Namely, alterations in fetal nutrition and endocrine status may result in developmental adaptations that permanently change the structure, physiology, and metabolism of the offspring, thereby predisposing individuals to metabolic, endocrine, and cardiovascular diseases in adult life. Animal studies show that both maternal undernutrition and overnutrition reduce placental-fetal blood flows and stunt fetal growth. Impaired placental syntheses of nitric oxide (a major vasodilator and angiogenesis factor) and polyamines (key regulators of DNA and protein synthesis) may provide a unified explanation for intrauterine growth retardation in response to the 2 extremes of nutritional problems with the same pregnancy outcome. There is growing evidence that maternal nutritional status can alter the epigenetic state (stable alterations of gene expression through DNA methylation and histone modifications) of the fetal genome. This may provide a molecular mechanism for the impact of maternal nutrition on both fetal programming and genomic imprinting. Promoting optimal nutrition will not only ensure optimal fetal development, but will also reduce the risk of chronic diseases in adults.

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