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Mothers transmit much more than genes to their baby in the womb

Mothers pass on many helpful things to their babies in the womb, and the regulated transmission of cells, molecules, and microbes to the fetus is critical for ensuring the healthy development of a baby.

When this transmission of crucial genes is disrupted, it can increase the risk of birth defects, such as congenital rubella and thalidomide exposure.

Researchers are still learning about how the maternal environment and nursing impacts early development, and a new issue in the journal Birth Defects Research focuses on this complex relationship.

The topics covered in the new issue show how the “dysregulation” of transmitted materials from mother to child in the womb increases the risk of everything from allergies to cardiovascular disease.

“The interactions between the maternal environment and offspring genes are hyper-complex, but studying them may suggest incredible opportunities to prevent diseases that are notoriously hard to treat after the fact,” said Patrick Jay, the co-editor of the new Birth Defects issue. “The reviews in the issue present the latest about what scientists and physicians have learned about maternal influences on the baby in utero.”

One of the articles brings up the possibility that the formation of gut flora, the garden of bacteria that make up the microbiome of our stomach and which are vital for destroying harmful bacteria, starts in the womb.

It was long thought that gut microbiota were the results of breastmilk consumption.

Researchers from Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine suggest that disruptions in fetal development can hinder helpful gut formation after birth which increases the risk of allergies and autoimmune problems.

Another study in the journal examined how dysregulation and maternal diabetes affect cardiac development and the important signaling pathways in an embryo.

A report conducted by researchers from the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin used mice to show environment and diet can impact offspring.

In that study, offspring born to mothers who spent their last trimester in a stressful, or “adverse” environment and who consumed a Western diet high in fat and sugar, had increased fibrosis which can increase the risk of heart failure.

All the articles in the issue all examine how the maternal environment and the underlying mechanisms passed on from mother to child impact development.

“Simply put – we’re at the tip of the iceberg in understanding how the gestational environment established by the mother affects her child’s health from birth to adulthood,” said Michiko Watanabe, a fellow co-editor of the special Birth Defects Research issue. “If an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure for one disease, targeting adverse maternal effects in the womb could be worth a ton for future public health.”

By Kay Vandette, Staff Writer

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