Signs From The Universe About Pregnancy – Suzanne Sadedini is an evolutionary biologist who has worked at Monash University, University of Tennessee, Harvard University and KU Leuven.
What scene is more touching than a mother breastfeeding a baby? What better idol is there for boundless love, intimacy, and giving? There’s a reason the Virgin and Child is one of the world’s greatest religious symbols.
Signs From The Universe About Pregnancy
, an Australian spider. The mother eats insects throughout the summer, so when winter comes, the pups suck blood from her leg joints. When they drank, she became weak until the babies swarmed around her, injected her with poison, and devoured her like any other prey.
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You might think this kind of cruelty is unheard of in child mammals. You would be wrong. Not that our children are better than
, but our mothers were less generous. A mother mammal works hard to prevent her offspring from asking for more than she is willing to give. Children struggle with manipulation, extortion and violence. His ferocity is most evident in the womb.
This fact does not fit some enduring cultural ideas about motherhood. Even today, it’s common to hear doctors refer to the endometrium as the “optimal environment” for an embryo to grow. But physiology has long cast doubt on this romantic view.
The cells of the human endometrium are tightly packed, forming a fortress-like wall inside the uterus. This barrier is full of deadly immune cells. As early as 1903, researchers noticed embryos “attacking” and “digesting” into the lining of the uterus. In 1914, RW Johnstone described the implantation zone as “a battle line in conflict between stem cells and invading trophoblasts”. It’s a battleground “full of…both sides dead.”
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When scientists try to breed mice outside the womb, they expect the embryos to wither, losing the surface that evolved to nourish them. To their surprise, they found that embryos implanted in mouse brains, testes or eyes went wild. Placental cells invade surrounding tissue, sacrificing everything in their path as they seek out arteries to satisfy nutrient cravings. It’s no coincidence that many of the same genes that are active in embryonic development have been linked to cancer. Pregnancy is more warlike than we like to admit.
So, if this is a battle, what started it? The initial point of contention: You and your next of kin are not genetically identical. Essentially, this means you are competing. And because you live in the same environment, your closest relationship is actually your closest competitor.
Robert Trivers first dared to explore the sinister implications of this reality in a series of influential articles in the 1970s. Over the next decade, an extraordinary graduate student named David Haig pondered Trivers’ ideas when he realized that the parenting practices of mammalian mothers created a unique opportunity for exploitation.
Haig understands your mother’s genetic interest in feeding all her children equally. But your father may never have another child with her. This makes his other kids your direct competitors and also gives your father’s genes reason to play the system. His genome will evolve to manipulate your mother to give you more resources. On the other hand, your genes will give you fewer resources. The situation turned into a tug of war. Some genes were silenced, while others became more active, counteracting them.
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, which explains how certain genes are expressed differently depending on whether they came from the father or mother. Armed with this theory, we can see how genetic conflicts of interest between parents play out in the genomes of their offspring.
Because the genomes of both parents drive the continuous production of powerful hormones, if one gene goes wrong, the results can be disastrous for both mother and child. Normal development occurs only when the two parental genotypes are properly balanced with each other. It’s like a tug-of-war, where one side is out, both are out. This is one of the reasons mammals cannot reproduce asexually and their cloning is so difficult: mammalian development requires a complex coordination of paternal and maternal genomes. One wrong step can break everything.
Ultimate mother, you certainly don’t have to worry about this. She will never have more than one cub, so there is no need to keep her offspring. But most mammalian mothers mate multiple times, often with different males. This fact alone ensures that the paternal and maternal genomes are against each other. You can see the tragic consequences of this hidden war throughout the mammalian course. However, there is one species that rises to truly unbelievable bloody heights.
For most mammals, life during pregnancy can go on almost as normal, despite the potential conflict. They flee predators, hunt prey, build homes and defend territories during pregnancy. Even labor is safe – they may twitch or sweat during labor, but that’s usually the worst. There are exceptions. For example, female hyenas give birth via an unrealistic penis-like structure, and about 18 percent of hyenas die during their first birth. But even for them, pregnancy itself is rarely dangerous.
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However, if we look at primates, the situation is different. Sometimes primate embryos can implant in the fallopian tubes instead of the uterus. When this happens, they frantically dig for the richest source of nutrients they can find; usually bleeding as a result. Among the great apes, things seem more difficult. Here, we start to see what may be the most dangerous pregnancy complication: preeclampsia, a mysterious disorder characterized by high blood pressure and the excretion of protein in the urine. Preeclampsia is responsible for approximately 12% of maternal deaths worldwide. But this is only the beginning of our problems.
The list of reproductive diseases plaguing our species may begin with placental abruption, hyperemesis gravidarum, gestational diabetes, cholestasis, and miscarriage, and continue. Overall, about 15 percent of women experience life-threatening complications during each pregnancy. Without medical help, more than 40 percent of female hunter-gatherers never reach menopause. Even with the help of modern medicine, around 800 women die every day due to pregnancy around the world.
So here we have a little mystery. The basic genetic conflict that makes the womb such a war zone occurs between countless species: All it takes for a war to break out is for a mother to produce multiple offspring from different fathers. But this is a fairly common breeding schedule in nature, and as we’ve seen, it doesn’t cause too much trouble for other mammals. How can people be so unhappy? Could it have something to do with another distinguishing feature of us: our unparalleled brain development?
In most mammals, the mother’s blood supply remains safely isolated from the fetus. It transfers nutrients to the fetus through a filter controlled by the mother. The mother is a tyrant: she only offers what she chooses, which makes her largely unmanipulated by her father during her pregnancy.
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In primates and mice, the situation is different. Invading placental cells penetrate deep into the endometrial surface, penetrate the mother’s arteries and swarm, remodeling them to fit the fetus. Outside of pregnancy, these arteries are small, tortuous things that run deep into the uterine wall. The invading placental cells paralyze the blood vessels so they can’t contract, and we pump them full of growth hormone, expanding them tenfold to absorb more of the mother’s blood. These fetal cells are so invasive that their colonies typically remain in the mother for the rest of her life, migrating to her liver, brain and other organs. Little is known about motherhood: It turns women into genetic mosaics.
Perhaps such a large amount of blood could explain why primate brains are five to ten times the size of the average mammalian brain. Metabolically, the brain is a very expensive organ, and most of their growth occurs before birth. What other fetus can finance this luxury?
Is this unrestricted access to maternal blood the key to the extraordinary brain development we see in young primates?
Given the invasive nature of pregnancy, it’s perhaps not surprising that primate wombs have evolved to be wary of it. Mammals whose placenta does not penetrate the uterine wall can simply abort or reabsorb an unwanted fetus at any stage of pregnancy. For primates, any such maneuvers carry the risk of bleeding, as the placenta detaches from the mother’s enlarged and paralyzed arterial system. In a word, this is why abortion is so dangerous.
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That’s why primates go to great lengths to test embryos before implanting them. The embryo is surrounded by the dense cells of the endometrium, while an intimate hormonal dialogue takes place. In Haig’s words, the conversation was a
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