More than 90 per cent of the fat deposition in the fetus occurs in the last 10 weeks of pregnancy during which it increases exponentially to reach a rate of accretion of around 7 g/day close to term. All of the n -3 and n -6 fatty acid structure acquired by the fetus has to cross the placenta and fetal blood is enriched in long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LCPUFA) relative to the maternal supply. The placenta may regulate its own fatty acid substrate supply via the action of placental leptin on maternal adipose tissue. Fatty acids cross the microvillous and basal membranes by simple diffusion and via the action of membrane bound and cytosolic fatty acid binding proteins (FABPs). The direction and magnitude of fatty acid flux is mainly dictated by the relative abundance of available binding sites. The fatty acid mix delivered to the fetus is largely determined by the fatty acid composition of the maternal blood although the placenta is able to preferentially transfer the important PUFA to the fetus as a result of selective uptake by the syncytiotrophoblast, intracellular metabolic channelling of individual fatty acids, and selective export to the fetal circulation. Placental FABP polymorphisms may affect these processes. There is little evidence to suggest that placental delivery of fatty acids limits normal fetal growth although the importance of the in utero supply may be to support post-natal development as most of the LCPUFA accumulated by the fetus is stored in the adipose tissue for use in early post-natal life.
Copyright 2002 IFPA and Elsevier Science Ltd.