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The University of Southampton
Biological Sciences

Research project: Comparative placentology using nanoscale and three-dimensional imaging 

Currently Active: 
Yes
Project type: 
Grant

The Placenta is a vital organ in the process of mammalian reproduction. However, the structure of this key mammalian innovation varies between clades. All placentas essentially mediate the same biological functions, but there appear to be very different ways of achieving this. 

The development of the fetus in the womb builds the foundations for its postnatal health and subsequent reproductive success. Key to a successful pregnancy is the functioning of the placenta, a temporary organ which connects the mother and fetus and supports the growth of the fetus in the womb. Placental functions include transport of gases, nutrients and wastes as well as endocrine signalling to the mother. How efficiently the placenta functions will determine how well the fetus develops and so affect its ability to successfully reproduce (its evolutionary fitness). 

For such an important organ it might be expected that an optimally efficient structure would be conserved across placental mammals (eutheria) with minor variations. However, there is an extraordinary diversity of placental structures with 4 categories based on gross morphology (discoid, cotyledonary, diffuse, zonal) and another 5 based on histology (epitheliochorial, synepitheliochorial, endotheliochorial, hemodichorial hemotrichorial). All placentas essentially mediate the same biological functions, but there appear to be very different ways of achieving this. 

The first objective of this study will be to determine whether the novel nanoscale placental structures observed in the human placenta are conserved across species. The second objective will be to see if there are novel three-dimensional structures that are not observed in humans but are conserved in other species. The third objective will be to explore different ways biological structures can achieve the same outcomes (e.g. fetal survival) and may help explain why placental structures are so diverse.

Principal Investigator: Prof. Rohan Lewis (FoM)
Co-investigator: Dr Neil J. Gostling (FELS) 
Postdoc: Dr Shelley Harris

Funding provider: Leverhulme Trust Postdoctoral Project (Ref: RPG-2019-208)
Funding dates: February 2020- May 2023

Related research groups

Ecology and Evolution
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