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BACKGROUND: A male fetus is suggested to be more susceptible to in utero and birth complications. This may be due in part to altered morphology or function of the XY placenta. We hypothesised that sexual dimorphism begins at the blastocyst stage with sex differences in the progenitor trophectoderm (TE) and its derived trophoblast lineages, as these cells populate the majority of cell types within the placenta. We investigated sex-specific differences in cell allocation in the pre-implantation embryo and further characterised growth and gene expression of the placental compartments from the early stages of the definitive placenta through to late gestation. METHODS: Naturally mated Sprague Dawley dams were used to collect blastocysts at embryonic day (E) 5 to characterise cell allocation; total, TE, and inner cell mass (ICM), and differentiation to downstream trophoblast cell types. Placental tissues were collected at E13, E15, and E20 to characterise volumes of placental compartments, and sex-specific gene expression profiles. RESULTS: Pre-implantation embryos showed no sex differences in cell allocation (total, TE and ICM) or early trophoblast differentiation, assessed by outgrowth area, number and ploidy of trophoblasts and P-TGCs, and expression of markers of trophoblast stem cell state or differentiation. Whilst no changes in placental structures were found in the immature E13 placenta, the definitive E15 placenta from female fetuses had reduced labyrinthine volume, fetal and maternal blood space volume, as well as fetal blood space surface area, when compared to placentas from males. No differences between the sexes in labyrinth trophoblast volume or interhaemal membrane thickness were found. By E20 these sex-specific placental differences were no longer present, but female fetuses weighed less than their male counterparts. Coupled with expression profiles from E13 and E15 placental samples may suggest a developmental delay in placental differentiation. CONCLUSIONS: Although there were no overt differences in blastocyst cell number or early placental development, reduced growth of the female labyrinth in mid gestation is likely to contribute to lower fetal weight in females at E20. These data suggest sex differences in fetal growth trajectories are due at least in part, to differences in placenta growth.

Original publication




Journal article


Biol Sex Differ

Publication Date





Blastocyst, DOHaD, Differentiation, Placenta, Sexual dimorphism, Trophectoderm, Trophoblast, Animals, Cell Count, Cell Differentiation, Chorionic Villi, Embryo Implantation, Female, Gestational Age, Male, Placenta, Placentation, Pregnancy, RNA, Messenger, Rats, Sprague-Dawley, Sex Characteristics