Maternal lipid metabolism and placental lipid transfer

Horm Res. 2006;65 Suppl 3:59-64. doi: 10.1159/000091507. Epub 2006 Apr 10.


During early pregnancy, long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LC-PUFA) may accumulate in maternal fat depots and become available for placental transfer during late pregnancy, when the fetal growth rate is maximal and fetal requirements for LC-PUFAs are greatly enhanced. During this late part of gestation, enhanced lipolytic activity in adipose tissue contributes to the development of maternal hyperlipidaemia; there is an increase in plasma triacylglycerol concentrations, with smaller rises in phospholipid and cholesterol concentrations. Besides the increase in plasma very-low-density lipoprotein, there is a proportional enrichment of triacylglycerols in both low-density lipoproteins and high-density lipoproteins. These lipoproteins transport LC-PUFA in the maternal circulation. The presence of lipoprotein receptors in the placenta allows their placental uptake, where they are hydrolysed by lipoprotein lipase, phospholipase A(2) and intracellular lipase. The fatty acids that are released can be metabolized and diffuse into the fetal plasma. Although present in smaller proportions, maternal plasma non-esterified fatty acids are also a source of LC-PUFA for the fetus, their placental transfer being facilitated by the presence of a membrane fatty acid-binding protein. There is very little placental transfer of glycerol, whereas the transfer of ketone bodies may become quantitatively important under conditions of maternal hyperketonaemia, such as during fasting, a high-fat diet or diabetes. The demands for cholesterol in the fetus are high, but whereas maternal cholesterol substantially contributes to fetal cholesterol during early pregnancy, fetal cholesterol biosynthesis rather than cholesterol transfer from maternal lipoproteins seems to be the main mechanism for satisfying fetal requirements during late pregnancy.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adipose Tissue / metabolism
  • Animals
  • Fatty Acids, Unsaturated / metabolism
  • Female
  • Fetus / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Hyperlipidemias / metabolism
  • Lipid Metabolism*
  • Maternal-Fetal Exchange*
  • Placenta / metabolism
  • Pregnancy / metabolism*


  • Fatty Acids, Unsaturated