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Open Access Research

Placental expression of pituitary hormones is an ancestral feature of therian mammals

Brandon R Menzies1*, Andrew J Pask2 and Marilyn B Renfree3

Author Affiliations

1 Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, Alfred-Kowalke-Str 17, 10315, Berlin, Germany

2 Department of Molecular and Cell Biology, University of Connecticut Storrs, CN, USA

3 Department of Zoology, The University of Melbourne, 3010, Victoria, Australia

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EvoDevo 2011, 2:16  doi:10.1186/2041-9139-2-16

Published: 19 August 2011

Abstract

Background

The placenta is essential for supplying nutrients and gases to the developing mammalian young before birth. While all mammals have a functional placenta, only in therian mammals (marsupials and eutherians) does the placenta closely appose or invade the uterine endometrium. The eutherian placenta secretes hormones that are structurally and functionally similar to pituitary growth hormone (GH), prolactin (PRL) and luteinizing hormone (LH). Marsupial and eutherian mammals diverged from a common ancestor approximately 125 to 148 million years ago and developed distinct reproductive strategies. As in eutherians, marsupials rely on a short-lived but functional placenta for embryogenesis.

Results

We characterized pituitary GH, GH-R, IGF-2, PRL and LHβ in a macropodid marsupial, the tammar wallaby, Macropus eugenii. These genes were expressed in the tammar placenta during the last third of gestation when most fetal growth occurs and active organogenesis is initiated. The mRNA of key growth genes GH, GH-R, IGF-2 and PRL were expressed during late pregnancy. We found significant up-regulation of GH, GH-R and IGF-2 after the start of the rapid growth phase of organogenesis which suggests that the placental growth hormones regulate the rapid phase of fetal growth.

Conclusions

This is the first demonstration of the existence of pituitary hormones in the marsupial placenta. Placental expression of these pituitary hormones has clearly been conserved in marsupials as in eutherian mammals, suggesting an ancestral origin of the evolution of placental expression and a critical function of these hormones in growth and development of all therian mammals.