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Keywords:

  • placenta;
  • programming;
  • nutrient transport;
  • hormones

Intrauterine programming is the process by which the structure and function of tissues are altered permanently by insults acting during early development. In mammals, the placenta controls intrauterine development by supplying oxygen and nutrients, and by regulating the bioavailability of specific hormones involved in foetal growth and development. Consequently, the placenta is likely to have a key role in mediating the programming effects of suboptimal conditions during development. This review examines placental phenotype in different environmental conditions and places particular emphasis on regulation of placental nutrient transfer capacity and endocrine function by insults known to cause intrauterine programming. More specifically, it examines the effects of a range of environmental challenges on the size, morphology, blood flow and transporter abundance of the placenta and on its rate of consumption and production of nutrients. In addition, it considers the role of hormone synthesis and metabolism by the placenta in matching intrauterine development to the prevailing environmental conditions. The adaptive responses that the placenta can make to compensate for suboptimal conditions in utero are also assessed in relation to the strategies adopted to maximise foetal growth and viability at birth. Environmentally-induced changes in placental phenotype may provide a mechanism for transmitting the memory of early events to the foetus later in gestation, which leads to intrauterine programming of tissue development long after the original insult.