Monday, 29 April 2013

Decidual and endometrial macrophages

Generic macrophage (Wikimedia Commons)

Macrophages are ancient cells. There are multiple lineages in mammals, some of which originate in the yolk sac rather than being the progeny of bone marrow-derived monocytes (reviewed here).

Macrophages constitute some 25% of the leukocyte population in the human uterus. Because there is cyclical recruitment of macrophages to the uterus, they are thought to be recruited from Ly6c+ inflammatory monocytes. Interestingly, however, when monocytes are differentiated in vitro, the cells resemble but are not identical to decidual macrophages (here).

One of the factors acting on decidual macrophages is human leukocyte antigen G (HLA-G) derived from trophoblast.  An HLA-G homodimer can bind to the LILRB1-Fc fusion protein on the surface of macrophages. However, HLA-G is a novel member of MHC Class I found only in higher primates, so this mechanism is not relevant to all mammals.


Macrophage differerentiation from Oliveira et al. (here) CC licence

Macrophages are abundant in the endometrial stroma of the bovine uterus especially in the regions between placentomes. There is evidence that these belong to the alternatively activated macrophage category (M2 pathway) and are endowed with immunosoppressive properties (here).

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Genome of the Coelacanth

West Indian Ocean coelacanth (Latimeria chalumnae) Wikimedia Commons

I remember how exciting it was when the second specimen of a coelacanth was caught in 1952. This "living fossil" was widely reported in the newspapers. Perhaps it was a formative moment.

Now the coelacanth genome has been sequenced and annotated (here).

The coelocanth is oviviviparous. Five fully developed young with attached yolk sacs were found in the right oviduct of a female specimen at the American Museum of Natural History (here). There was no indication of placentation but it is but a short step from ovoviviparity to placental viviparity - the more critical step being evolution of intromission.

The new report applied phylogenomics to look for genes that might have been significant in the transition from water to land. A number of developmental genes present in the coelocanth were lost in tetrapods. However, Hox genes, which determine overall body plan, were well conserved. An interesting exception was Hoxa14 and hereby hangs a tale. A conserved non-coding element associated with Hoxa14 in the coelacanth (HA14E1) was retained in tetrapods. It is speculated that it might have been recruited to coordinate nearby genes (Hoxa13, Hoxa11 and Hoxa10) that are critical in formation of mammalian fetal membranes.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Placentation in the American moles

Eastern American Mole (Scalopus aquaticus) Wikimedia Commons

Harland Mossman was an astute observer. When he reported that the Eastern mole (seen above) had a diffuse epitheliochorial placenta, people took notice. It was 40 years before the evidence was laid out (here) and ever since it has been controversial.

MalassinĂ© and Leiser (here) examined the placenta of the European mole (Talpa europaea) and found it was endotheliochorial. A recent study of a related species (T. occidentalis) (here) arrived at the same result.

So do European and American moles differ in their placentation? A side by side comparison of electron micrographs (found here) opens the possibility that different labels were given to analagous structures.

The Prasad thesis

M.R.N Prasad Wikimedia Commons

Mossman had quite a collection of American mole placentas and entrusted them to a graduate student M.R.N. Prasad. But is clear from Prasad's 1958 thesis and from the annotated versions of an unpublished manuscript that his findings did not support Mossman's interpretation. The story is told in detail elsewhere (here). Prasad was a Fulbright scholar and later had a distinguished career as a reproductive endocrinologist and WHO expert. The Indian National Science Academy has a Professor MRN Prasad Memorial Lecture.

Prasad claimed the initial stages of placentation were invasive with loss of the uterine epithelium. This was at odds with Mossman's theoretical framework. Later in development, however, Prasad found signs of a re-establishment of the uterine epithelium. The placenta of Scalopus started off endotheliochorial (as later described for Talpa) but reverted to epitheliochorial. This interesting interpretation cries for re-examination using more sophisticated methods than were available to Prasad.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Evolution of oxytocin and the oxytocin receptor

Evolution of vasopressin and oxytocin family of nonapeptides
From Gwee et al. (here) © 2008 Gwee et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.

Delivery of the fetus and placenta depends in part on the action of oxytocin (a pituitary hormone) on oxytocin receptors in the myometrium. Duplication of the vasotocin (VT) gene of lampreys was the basis for the evolution of oxytocin (OT) and arginine vasopressin (VP).

A fresh study (here) confirms this scenario but takes a closer look at the evolution of the receptors. There are three receptors for vasopressin and one for oxytocin. In essence the hypothesis is that these arose during the whole genome duplications that are thought to have occurred early in the evolution of vertebrates. It is noted that these two rounds of duplication would in theory have produced four vasotocin genes. If so, three were lost and the fourth only later gave rise to the oxytocin gene by a separate tandem duplication event. The gist of the argument is that the receptor evolved first.

Whilst oxytocin acts on the mammary glands and uterus of mammals, vasopressin acts on the kidney. In addition, both peptides act as neurotransmitters in the brain. Yamashita and Kitano suggest the neurotransmitter role came first. Only later were receptors expressed in peripheral organs such as the uterus and the peptides secreted as hormones from the posterior pituitary.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Alfred Russel Wallace

Alfred Russel Wallace from the frontispiece of Darwinism 1889 

The current issue of Nature (here) carries an appreciation of Alfred Russel Wallace, who independently of Darwin hit upon the principle of natural selection. He had a firm grasp of the species concept based on his experiences in Amazonia. In 1852 he reported on the distribution of Neotropical primates writing, "I soon found that the Amazon, the Rio Negro and the Madeira formed the limits beyond which species never passed" (On the monkeys of the Amazon Proc Zool Soc Lond 1852; 20: 107-110).

Humming-bird fertilizing Maregravia nepenthoides
from Darwinism 1889 

Wallace was based on Barra at the confluence of the Amazon and the Rio Preto. During the subsequent rubber boom it was transformed to the prosperous city of Manaus with a world class opera house. It is now home to the prestigious National Institute of Amazonian Research (INPA). Wallace's expedition, however, ended with the loss of many of his specimens in a fire on the ship that was to have carried him back to England.

The man who knew islands

Next Wallace went to Indonesia. His work there is recounted in The Malay Archipelago (1869), as reviewed in a companion article in Nature by Richard Quammen. Wallace is regarded as the father of biogeography. Quammen devoted a long chapter to him in the prize winning book Song of the Dodo (reviewed here). Among his legacy is the concept known as the Wallace Line, a water barrier that separates the Southeast Asian and Australasian flora and fauna. If you are planning a trip to Bali remember to include the Gili Isles and you will cross the Wallace Line as you go. 

To finance his travels, Wallace collected many specimens of the same species. As Quammen writes, "one effect of this redundant, commercial collecting was that he saw intraspecific variation laid out before him." This led him to the principle of natural selection, which Darwin was slow to gestate.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Giraffe placenta

Giraffes in winter quarters at Odense Zoo
Courtesy af Jonathan Thorvaldsen

Recent phylogenies (here and here) show a basal split among pecoran ruminants in the Late Oligicene, with Giraffidae (giraffe and okapi) and Antilocapridae (pronghorn) on one branch and Bovidae (cattle, sheep and goats, antelopes), Moschidae (musk ox) and Cervidae (deer) on the other. Hitherto, detailed knowlege about placentation has been limited to domesticated species from the latter group.

Delivered giraffe placenta with cotyledons from Benirschke (here)

The new study of of the maternal-fetal interface in two giraffe placentas by Sandra Wilsher and others (here) is therefore important. It confirms that the placenta is polycotyledonary and that binucleate trophoblast cells are present in fewer numbers than in sheep, cattle and deer. Binucleate cells in the placentomes stained intensely for prolactin whereas binucleate cells in the intercaruncular regions did not. This hormone might play a role in the production of accessory corpora lutea in the ovaries of the mother and the female fetus. It remains to be determined if the antibody was binding to a protein identical to pituitary prolactin or to a placental lactogen. The giraffe genome would appear to be uncharted territory.

At the edges of each placentome there were marginal folds of allantochorion situated above the openings of dilated uterine glands, suggesting a route for histiotrophic nutrition.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Resurrecting mammoth hemoglobin

Mummified baby mammoth at the Field Museum (Wikipedia Commons)

National Geographic’s cover story, “Reviving Extinct Species,” has garnered much media attention as well as serious debate (e.g. here). I was struck by the apparent assumption that an ovum with a reconstructed mammoth genome could be gestated in an elephant uterus. Experience with embryo transfer between closely related species is not encouraging. 70% of donkey-in-horse pregnancies ended in abortion after 80-85 days because of defective placental development (reference here).

Perhaps less spectacular but nonetheless impressive is the resurrection of mammoth hemoglobin achieved 3 years ago by a team led by Kevin Campbell of the University of Manitoba (here). They were able to make functional analyses that revealed adaptations for cold tolerance.

Primates and some other mammals have a fetal hemoglobin with high oxygen affinity that aids oxygen transfer across the placenta. Many mammals use a different trick to raise the oxygen affinity of fetal blood. The fetal red cells have a low content of the hemoglobin ligand DPG thereby increasing the molecule's affinity for oxygen (explained here). DPG certainly binds to mammoth DPG, raising the possibility that mammoth fetuses, too, had red cells with a low DPG content.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Mouse lemurs

Peters' mouse lemur (Microcebus myoxinus) Wikimedia Commons

Mouse lemurs are the smallest primates. Two new species have just been described bringing the total to twenty.

A previous post (here) emphasized that placentation in Malagasy lemurs is remarkably similar to that of the lorises and bush babies of Asia and Africa, i.e. diffuse in shape and epitheliochorial.

Mouse lemurs though have elaborated on this pattern. Firstly the diffuse shape is broken by a more compact disk-like portion. Secondly some areas of the placenta have become endotheliochorial through the local loss of uterine epithelium (Reng Z. Saugertierkd 1977; 42: 201.14).