Rhythmic Three-Part Harmony: The Complex Interaction of Maternal, Placental and Fetal Circadian Systems

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22 Citations (Scopus)


From the perspective of circadian biology, mammalian pregnancy presents an unusual biological scenario in which an entire circadian system (i.e., that of the fetus) is embodied within another (i.e., that of the mother). Moreover, both systems are likely to be influenced at their interface by a third player, the placenta. Successful pregnancy requires major adaptations in maternal physiology, many of which involve circadian changes that support the high metabolic demands of the growing fetus. A functional role for maternal circadian adaptations is implied by the effects of circadian disruption, which result in pregnancy complications including higher risks for miscarriage, preterm labor, and low birth weight. Various aspects of fetal physiology lead to circadian variation, at least in late gestation, but it remains unclear what drives this rhythmicity. It likely involves contributions from the maternal environment and possibly from the placenta and the developing intrinsic molecular clocks within fetal tissues. The role of the placenta is of particular significance because it serves not only to relay signals about the external environment (via the mother) but may also exhibit its own circadian rhythmicity. This review considers how the fetus may be influenced by dynamic circadian signals from the mother and the placenta during gestation, and how, in the face of these changing influences, a new fetal circadian system emerges. Particular emphasis is placed on the role of endocrine signals, most notably melatonin and glucocorticoids, as mediators of maternal-fetal circadian interactions, and on the expression of the clock gene in the 3 compartments. Further study is required to understand how the mother, placenta, and fetus interact across pregnancy to optimize circadian adaptations that support adequate growth and development of the fetus and its transition to postnatal life in a circadian environment.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)534-549
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Biological Rhythms
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2017


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