Epidemiological studies have shown a clear link between fetal growth retardation and an increased propensity for later cardiovascular disease in adults. It has been hypothesized that such early fetal deprivation "programs" individuals toward a life-long metabolical "thrifty phenotype" that predisposes adults to such diseases. Here we test this hypothesis, and its possible genetic basis, in rat recombinant inbred (RI) strains that uniquely allow the longitudinal studies necessary for its testing. Placental and fetal weights were determined on day 20 of pregnancy in (at least) 6 litters from each of 25 available BXH/HXB RI strains and from their SHR and BN-Lx progenitors and were correlated with metabolic traits determined in adult rats from the same inbred lines. Quantitative trait loci (QTLs) associated with placental and fetal weights were identified by total genome scanning of RI strains using the Map Manager QTX program. Heritabilities of placental and fetal weights were 56% and 62%, respectively, and total genome scanning of RI strains revealed QTLs near the D1Rat266 marker on chromosome 1 and near the D15Rat101 marker on chromosome 15 that were significantly associated with fetal and placental weights respectively. Placental weights correlated with fetal weights (r = 0.60, P = 0.001), while reduced fetal weights correlated with increased insulin concentrations during glucose tolerance test (r = -0.71, P = 0.0001) and with increased serum triglycerides (r = -0.54, P = 0.006) in adult rats. Our results suggest that predisposition toward a thrifty phenotype associated with decreased placental weight and restricted fetal growth is in part genetically determined.