Impact of thermal stress on placental function and fetal physiology
In ruminants, prolonged exposure to high ambient temperatures negatively affects placental development and function. The pursuing limitations in placental oxygen and nutrient supply between the mother and fetus slow fetal growth lowering birth weights and postnatal performance. The pregnant ewe is a long-standing animal model for the study of maternal-fetal interactions and is susceptible to naturally occurring heat stress, which causes fetal growth restriction. In the pregnant ewe, studies show that the fetus adapts to hyperthermia-induced placental insufficiency to preserve placental transport capacity of oxygen and nutrients. These adaptive responses are at the expense of normal fetal development and growth. Enlarged transplacental gradient for oxygen and glucose facilitates diffusion across the placenta, but develops by lowering fetal blood oxygen and glucose concentrations. Fetal hypoxemia and hypoglycemia slow growth and alter their metabolic and endocrine profiles. Deficits in amino acids transport across the placenta are present but are overcome by reduced fetal clearance rates, likely due to fetal hypoxemia or endocrine responses to hypoxic stress. Here, we provide an overview of the performance limitations observed in ruminants exposed to heat stress during pregnancy, but we focus our presentation on the sheep fetus in pregnancies complicated by hyperthermia-induced placental insufficiency. We define the characteristics of placental dysfunction observed in the fetus of heat stressed ewes during pregnancy and present developmental adaptations in organogenesis, metabolism, and endocrinology that are proposed to establish maladaptive situations reaching far beyond the perinatal period.
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