Genes, folate and homocysteine in embryonic development

Proc Nutr Soc. 2001 Feb;60(1):53-61.


Population-based studies of human pregnancies show that periconceptional folate supplementation has a significant protective effect for embryos during early development, resulting in a significant reduction in developmental defects of the face, the neural tube, and the cono-truncal region of the heart. These results have been supported by experiments with animal models. An obvious quality held in common by these three anatomical regions is that the normal development of each region depends on a set of multi-potent cells that originate in the mid-dorsal region of the neural epithelium. However, the reason for the sensitive dependence of these particular cells on folic acid for normal development has not been obvious, and there is no consensus about the biological basis of the dramatic rescue with periconceptional folate supplementation. There are two principal hypotheses for the impact of folate insufficiency on development; each of these hypotheses has a micronutrient component and a genetic component. In the first hypothesis the effect of low folate is direct, limiting the availability of folic acid to cells within the embryo itself; thus compromising normal function and limiting proliferation. The second hypothetical effect is indirect; low folate disrupts methionine metabolism; homocysteine increases in the maternal serum; homocysteine induces abnormal development by inhibiting the function of N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors in the neural epithelium. There are three general families of genes whose level of expression may need to be considered in the context of these two related hypotheses: folate-receptor genes; genes that regulate methionine-homocysteine metabolism; NMDA-receptor genes.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Dietary Supplements
  • Embryonic and Fetal Development / genetics
  • Embryonic and Fetal Development / physiology*
  • Female
  • Folic Acid / administration & dosage*
  • Folic Acid / metabolism
  • Homocysteine / genetics
  • Homocysteine / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Neural Tube Defects / prevention & control*
  • Pregnancy


  • Homocysteine
  • Folic Acid