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The placenta might be a unique organ, but new research reveals it's not sterile as previously thought. What bacteria are lurking in the placenta, and what effect does this have?

Where in the body did scientists find "bacteria similar to those in the mouth", especially E Coli and bacteria that are usually found in dental cavities? You might guess that we're talking about the esophagus or the intestines, but you'd be wrong. It's actually the placenta. Previously thought to be completely sterile, this organ now turns out to be a cesspool of bacteria. 

Placenta Full Of Bacteria

Researchers from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, TX analyzed placenta samples from 320 women. Lead author Dr Kjersti Aagaard, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology in the section of maternal fetal medicine at Baylor and the Texas Children's Pavilion for women, explained why. Her team noted that "the most abundant microbes in the mom's vagina were not what populated the baby's intestinal microbiome" after comparing the two.

"We reasoned that there must be another source 'seeding' the infant's gut at birth, so we sought to examine the placenta," Dr Aagaard explained. 

Using a process called shotgun metagenomic sequencing, the team investigated which kind of bacteria could be found in the placenta. They also looked at the identified microbes' genetic pathways. Indeed, the team found lots of different bacteria in the placenta samples — though their populations weren't very high. E Coli, which we usually think of as being pretty scary, was found to be most abundant. Prevotella tannerae and Neisseria, typically found within dental cavities, were also present.

That hardly sounds like a nice, cushy environment for a fetus, does it? The presence of these bacteria could, however, explain why there is a link between gum disease and premature labor.

The study team further found that women who experienced infections — like UTIs — during pregnancy had different placental bacteria, even if the infection happened months ago and was treated with antibiotics. Those who experienced preterm births also had different bacteria, perhaps indicating that bacteria could play a role in premature labor. Dr Aasgaard was pleased with the findings: "These discoveries could lead to rapid breakthroughs in not only identifying women at risk for preterm birth, but developing new and worthwhile strategies to prevent preterm birth." 

She added: "As we catch glimmers of the microbial biology of pregnancy, we can start to see a not-too-distant future where we will prevent preterm birth with truly novel approaches aimed at enhancing the healthy microbes of not just the vagina, but the mouth and gut. As we unravel the mysteries of pregnancy, we are learning that our microbes may be as much friend as foe. That is fantastic news for our moms and their babies."

More Placenta News

In another study, British and Saudi researchers looked examined data from over 7,000 babies who were born in hospitals in Saudi Arabia to see if fasting during the Ramadan affected the placenta and pregnancy. Ninety percent of Saudi expectant moms fast during the Muslim holy month, and the study found that a baby's birth weight was not affected by fasting. 

However, fasting during the second and third trimesters of pregnancy did result in a significantly smaller placenta. In boys, the placenta was found to be three percent lighter if their mother faster in the later stages of pregnancy, while girls' placentae were 1,5 percent lighter. 

Children who are born with a lighter placenta have a higher risk of developing cardiovascular diseases later in life, but researchers aren't prepared to advise pregnant women against fasting just yet. Further research is required to determine the true risks. 

On a "lighter" note, not every new mother wants to donate her placenta to science. According to the British tabloid the Mirror, sustainable design graduate Amanda Cotton from the UK will now take your placenta, boil it up, and make a unique picture frame out of it. She told the tabloid: "We need to think of all waste in a completely new way, as raw materials which hold huge potential. Why not use human waste where possible?"

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