PLACENTAL DEFECTS ARE HIGHLY PREVALENT IN EMBRYONIC LETHALS

It is widely known that a functional placenta is vital for normal embryonic development, but how much it may contribute to embryonic lethality has never before been systematically studied. Our research, published in Nature, demonstrates for the first time a remarkable co-association between embryonic lethality and placental defects.


A healthy placenta is vital to sustain normal pregnancy, ensuring proper supply of nutrients and oxygen to the baby. Abnormalities in the placenta can therefore have serious repercussions on fetal development, even causing miscarriage. Despite this, remarkably little is known about the identity of genes essential for a normal, functioning placenta and even less about the extent to which placental abnormalities contribute to defects that can arise as the fetus develops.

EXTENT AND IMPACT

We screened more than 100 mouse mutant lines in which affected embryos die before or immediately at birth. Almost 70% showed serious abnormalities in the placenta; in extreme cases this resulted in a placenta incapable of supporting embryo development beyond an early stage (Figure 1), in others, abnormalities in the developing embryo were accompanied by abnormalities in the placenta.

FIGURE 1 – mouse mid-gestation embryos and placentas shown at the same magnification


LEFT: a normal, wild-type (WT) genotype. RIGHT: Nubpl mutation (MUT) shows a growth-retarded and developmentally delayed embryo that will not survive until birth.

The placentas are stained for a marker of the exchange surface (MCT4, in green) across which nutrients are transported from the mother to the embryo. Note the complete absence of this cell type from the MUT placenta. Red staining is for a cell surface protein (CDH1) demarcating the cells underneath the MCT4-positive layer (arrows), which are greatly reduced in number in the MUT placenta.

EMBRYO AND PLACENTA DEFECTS ARE LINKED

Not only do these results identify a large number of genes essential for normal development of the placenta; in addition they show an intriguing link between placental defects and abnormalities affecting the brain , heart and vascular system of the embryo itself. The research, led by Dr Myriam Hemberger and her colleagues at the Babraham Institute demonstrates how common placental abnormalities are when embryos develop abnormally.

RESCUING EMBRYONIC LETHALITY

The team examined in detail three different genes that cause embryonic lethality, and showed that for two of them the loss of the gene affected proper differentiation of placental cell types. For one of these genes they were also able to show that embryo death was a direct result of gene loss in the placenta, by providing the mutant embryo with a genetically normal placenta, which prevented embryo death.

Although the DMDD study uses mice, the results are likely to be just as relevant for studying human pregnancy and the role the placenta may play in pregnancy complications and the origins of birth defects in newborn babies.


REFERENCES

The Advance Online Publication on Nature, ‘Placentation defects are highly prevalent in embryonic lethal mouse mutants is available now .


All image and phenotype data gathered by the DMDD programme is freely available to the scientific community at dmdd.org.uk. The research described in this blog post was funded by the Wellcome Trust with support from the Francis Crick Institute.

LATEST DATA RELEASE HIGHLIGHTS INCLUDING NEW HEART DEFECT ASSOCIATIONS

Our latest data release includes HREM image data for an additional 5 lines, and HREM phenotyping data for 4 lines. Five additional early lethal lines have also been identified, as well as placental phenotype data for more than 100 mutant lines, with associated placenta morphology and yolk sac images.

Throughout the DMDD project we continue to add data for existing lines, and in this release we have added P14 viability for mutant lines, Theiler stage (where assessed), and the voxel size of each HREM image stack.

Initial analysis of the new HREM phenotyping data shows two lines newly associated with heart defects.


Oaz1 ASSOCIATED WITH DORV

Oaz1 is a gene regulating levels of polyamines within the cell and is widely distributed in cells and tissues of the body. Our data now shows that removal of this gene causes a serious abnormality in heart development in which the vessel normally carrying blood from the left ventricle of the heart (the aorta) is in fact attached to the right ventricle (a defect known as “double outlet right ventricle” or DORV). As with many mutant lines, the embryos also show extensive swelling of the body (“edema”).

Left panel: a view of the heart seen from the right side and showing both the pulmonary trunk (red arrow) and the aorta (yellow arrow) drain from the right ventricle. Right panel: a cross section through the body at the level of the heart shows the extent of swelling (arrows) in tissue beneath the skin.

 


Cc2d2a ASSOCIATED WITH VSD AND OSTIUM PRIMUM DEFECT

Cc2d2a encodes a protein that plays a critical role in formation of cell cilia and mutations in this gene are associated with diseases such as Meckel syndrome type 6, which results in a broad range of symptoms such as polydactyly, cleft palate and kidney malformations. Our data reveals that removal of the Cc2d2a gene also has profound effects on heart development. Not only do the embryo hearts fail to complete separation of the left and right ventricular chambers (a “ventricular septal defect”), they also fail to form a proper wall between the left and right atrial chambers (an “ostium primum defect”). In addition, they have lost a swath of tissue at the junction between the atria and ventricles (the “vestibular spine”) that is essential for completing chamber separation.

Shows three views of the embryo heart. The lefthand panel shows the ventricular septal defect; the middle panel shows the osmium primum defect and the right panel shows the absence of vestibular spine tissue which normally enables the atrial and ventricular septal walls to attach to each other.

Many of the genes studied by DMDD do not currently appear to be associated with any disease, however careful analysis of the phenotypes from lines such as these could contribute to the identification of new disease models, and our data is freely available at dmdd.org.uk in order to encourage this. For more information please email contact@dmdd.org.uk.


A FULL LIST OF NEW DATA IN THE LATEST RELEASE