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Abstract

The placenta is a transmitter of fetal need and fetal quality, interfacing directly with maternal physiology and ecology. Plasticity of placental structure and function across the developmental timeframe of gestation may serve as an important tool by which a fetus calibrates its growth to shifting maternal ecology and resource availability, and thereby signals its quality and adaptability to a changing environment. Signals of this quality may be conveyed by the size of the placental interface, an important marker of fetal access to maternal resources, or by production of placental insulin-like growth factor-II, a driver of fetoplacental growth. Litter size variation in the common marmoset monkey offers the opportunity to explore intrauterine resource allocation and placental plasticity in an important nonhuman primate model. Triplet marmosets are born at lower birth weights and have poorer postnatal outcomes and survivorship than do twins; triplet placentas differ in placental efficiency, microscopic morphology, and endocrine function. Through placental plasticity, triplet fetuses are able to adjust functional access to maternal resources in a way that allows pregnancy to proceed. However, the costs of such mechanisms may relate to reduced fetal growth and altered postnatal outcomes, with the potential to lead to adverse adult health consequences, suggesting an important link between the placenta itself and the developmental origins of health and disease. Am. J. Hum. Biol. 2009. © 2009 Wiley-Liss, Inc.