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Starting from inside Fetal programming center looks at impact of maternal diets on offspring

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Laramie – Steve Ford, director of the University of Wyoming (UW) Center for the Study of Fetal Programming, has worked on understanding the interactions between the mother and fetus in utero to better comprehend the factors involved in fetal growth and development.

“The mother, through her diet, can modulate growth and development of the fetus,” Ford says. “The goal of our research is to look at what changes occur in the mother if we modulate her diet.”

Research at the Center for the Study of Fetal Programming extends beyond livestock and into human health, as well.

“The National Institutes of Health has started a new program where they are trying to develop animal models for human disease,” Ford explains. “We know fetal programming has an impact on human babies. Livestock give us a great model, and sheep are similar, especially with what happens in pregnancy, to humans.”


Ford’s research at UW started with over- and under-nourishing livestock to look at implications.

“Maternal nutrition should be kept fairly consistent,” he says. “If we modulate maternal nutrition too much, we alter the way the fetus grows and develops. It will develop abnormalities, compared to if it is raised in the farm environment.”

A study conducted at UW looked at over-nourishment of ewes and the impacts on the fetus.

“We’ve been over-nourishing ewes by 150 percent in pregnancy, so they double their body weight,” Ford says. “We find that, when their babies are born, they eat more than those lambs that came from mothers fed a normal diet.”

“These babies also develop obesity and precursors for Type II diabetes,” he continues. “It also alters carcass quality.”

Multiple generations

Ford’s research has pinpointed impacts to the offspring of over-nourished mothers, but the Center for the Study of Fetal Programming is also working on researching the transgenerational passage of genes.

“We can take an F1 offspring from an overfed mother, raise her and feed her a normal diet,” Ford explains. “When she has a lamb, her lamb will have all the problems she had. It seems that when we overfeed a mother, it seems that we have altered the genetics not only in that individual but in her offspring, as well.”

Their research extends three generations currently and will continue to look at impacts of maternal diets on their offspring.

Current research

With a grasp on the fact that diet does impact fetal development, Ford says UW is not working to isolate the genes that are modified when ewes are over-nourished.

“We have collected fetal and maternal tissues,” he adds. “We are working with the New Mexico Genome Research Lab in Santa Fe, N.M. and they’re helping us to come up with the picture of how genes are changing.”

Ford hopes they will help to follow the pathways that occur and which genes are altered to contribute to obesity in offspring of over-nourished mothers.

Unique institution

Research in the center at UW is one-of-a-kind, and Ford says their large animal model makes the research attractive to many academics and students.

Over a dozen graduate students, undergraduates and faculty are working on the project, and UW’s Center for the Study of Fetal Programming also hosts researchers from around the country and across the globe.

“We’ve had about a dozen people collect tissues and take them back to their countries for further research,” Ford says.

He comments, “We’re the last institution using sheep, due to the expense of using a large animal model. We are one of the few groups who have continued to utilize the sheep because it has so much pertinence to the human.”

Many institutions utilize rats for fetal programming research, but Ford says the sheep is more applicable to humans.

“UW is ahead of many other institutions in that the college and department have really listened and encouraged us to think about the importance of fetal programming,” he says.

“We’ve known for a long time that it isn’t just genetics that alters the phenotype of an animal, but it’s also small things,” Ford explains. “In this case, maternal nutrition is driving phenotypic changes to the fetus.”

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at

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