Adverse nutritional effects on developing foetal hypothalamic appetitive pathways may contribute to programmed hyperphagia and obesity in intra-uterine growth-restricted, low birth weight offspring. In the present study, for the first time, hypothalamic gene expression for primary orexigenic and anorexigenic genes was examined in late gestation ovine foetuses (130 days; term = 145 days) whose mothers were undernourished (UN) or well-nourished (C) throughout pregnancy, or transferred from UN to C on day 90 (UN-C). Pregnancies resulted from singleton embryo transfer into adolescent growing ewes. Body weight, carcass fat content and perirenal adipose tissue (PAT) mass were all lower for UN (n = 9) than C (n = 7) and intermediate for UN-C foetuses (n = 6), with no effect of sex. PAT leptin gene expression (by the reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction) was lower in UN than C and UN-C groups, and lower in males than females. Gene expression (by in situ hybridisation with radiolabelled riboprobes) in the arcuate nucleus was greater in UN than C foetuses for neuropeptide Y (NPY), agouti-related peptide (AGRP) and leptin receptor (OBRb) but not different for pro-opiomelanocortin and cocaine- and amphetamine-regulated transcript. Gene expression in UN-C foetuses was intermediate for NPY and AGRP and not different from C foetuses for OBRb. Gene expression for NPY, AGRP and OBRb correlated negatively with foetal carcass fat content and with PAT leptin gene expression across all groups. Males had greater mRNA expression for AGRP than females, with NPY and OBRb showing similar trends. Therefore, maternal undernutrition throughout pregnancy increased orexigenic gene expression in the late gestation foetal hypothalamus, and expression levels were largely normalised by improved maternal nutrition in the last third of pregnancy. These findings may have implications for avoiding or correcting prenatal programming of postnatal hyperphagia and obesity.
Research was funded by the Scottish Government's Rural and Environment Science and Analytical Services Division (RESAS), including the Strategic Partnership for Animal Science Excellence (SPASE). The authors have no conflicts of interest to declare.
- Agouti-related peptide
- Arcuate nucleus
- Leptin receptor
- Neuropeptide Y