Control of the pulmonary circulation in the fetus and during the transitional period to air breathing

Eur J Obstet Gynecol Reprod Biol. 1999 Jun;84(2):127-32. doi: 10.1016/s0301-2115(98)00321-2.


During fetal life and the transition to extra-uterine air breathing, pulmonary vascular tone is regulated by a complex, interactive group of mechanisms. Arachidonic acid metabolites play an important role in this regulation. Although prostaglandins may not be central to regulation of the resting fetal pulmonary circulation, PGI2 acts to modulate tone and thereby maintain pulmonary vascular resistance relatively constant. PGI2 also may play an important role as one of the components involved in the major changes that occur with the onset of air breathing. Leukotrienes, also metabolites of arachidonic acid and potent smooth muscle constrictors, may play an active role in maintaining the normally high fetal pulmonary vascular resistance, because leukotriene receptor blockade or synthesis inhibition increases pulmonary blood flow about eight-fold; the presence of leukotrienes in fetal tracheal fluid further supports this. In addition to PGI2, vascular endothelial cells produce other vasoactive factors. These include potent vasodilators, such as endothelium-derived relaxing factor (EDRF). EDRF, known to be nitric oxide (NO) and often called endothelium-derived nitric oxide (EDNO), is produced by endothelial cells in response to varied stimuli, generally involving specific receptors and the activation of endothelial NO synthetase (eNOS); subsequent smooth muscle relaxation is produced by a NO/guanylyl cyclase/cGMP-mediated mechanism. NO clearly is involved in regulation of vascular tone in the fetal pulmonary circulation, although it plays a far more important role in the postnatal transition to air breathing. Superfused fetal sheep pulmonary arteries release NO when stimulated with bradykinin. In fetal lambs the vasodilating effects of bradykinin are attenuated by methylene blue and resting tone falls with N(omega)-nitro-L-arginine, an inhibitor of NO synthesis, suggesting that a NO/cGMP-dependent mechanism continuously modulates or offsets the increased tone of the resting fetal pulmonary circulation. Inhibition of NO synthesis blocks the pulmonary vasodilation with oxygenation of fetal lungs in utero. Shear stress-induced NO production as well as the relationship of oxygenation to NO production further support the important function of NO in the transition. Although endothelin-1 (ET-1) has potent vasoactivity as well as ontogenetic differences in effect on pulmonary vascular resistance, its exact physiological role has not been defined. Adrenomedullin and calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP), two additional vasoactive substances, have profound, and prolonged, vasodilating effects in the fetal pulmonary circulation. Their physiological roles have not yet been established.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Animals, Newborn / physiology*
  • Endothelin-1 / physiology
  • Epoprostenol / physiology
  • Fetus / physiology*
  • Goats
  • Lung / blood supply
  • Lung / physiology
  • Nitric Oxide / physiology
  • Pulmonary Circulation / physiology*
  • Rats
  • Respiration*
  • Sheep
  • Vascular Resistance / physiology


  • Endothelin-1
  • Nitric Oxide
  • Epoprostenol