Oxygen, the Janus gas; its effects on human placental development and function

J Anat. 2009 Jul;215(1):27-35. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-7580.2008.00978.x. Epub 2008 Oct 13.


The accumulation of oxygen in the earth's atmosphere enabled metabolic pathways based on high-energy electron transfers that were capable of sustaining complex multicellular organisms to evolve. This advance came at a price, however, for the high reactivity of oxygen posed a major challenge as biological molecules became susceptible to oxidative damage, resulting in potential loss of function. Many extant physiological systems are therefore adapted, and homeostatically regulated, to supply sufficient oxygen to meet energy demands whilst also protecting cells, and mitochondria in particular, from excessive concentrations that could lead to oxidative damage. The invasive form of implantation displayed by the human conceptus presents particular challenges in this respect. During the first trimester, the conceptus develops in a low oxygen environment that favours organogenesis in the embryo, and cell proliferation and angiogenesis in the placenta. Later in pregnancy, higher oxygen concentrations are required to support the rapid growth of the fetus. This transition, which appears unique to the human placenta, must be negotiated safely for a successful pregnancy. Normally, onset of the maternal placental circulation is a progressive periphery-centre phenomenon, and is associated with extensive villous regression to form the chorion laeve. In cases of miscarriage, onset of the circulation is both precocious and disorganized, and excessive placental oxidative stress and villous regression undoubtedly contribute to loss of the pregnancy. Comparison of experimental and in vivo data indicates that fluctuations in placental oxygen concentration are a more powerful stimulus for the generation of oxidative stress than chronic hypoxia alone. Placental oxidative and endoplasmic reticulum stress appear to play key roles in the pathophysiology of complications of pregnancy, such as intrauterine growth restriction and preeclampsia, through their adverse impacts on placental function and growth. Establishing an inviolable maternal blood supply for the second and third trimesters is therefore one of the most crucial aspects of human placentation.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Female
  • Fetal Development / physiology
  • Humans
  • Oxidative Stress / physiology*
  • Oxygen / blood
  • Oxygen Consumption / physiology
  • Placenta / physiology*
  • Placentation / physiology*
  • Pregnancy
  • Reactive Oxygen Species / metabolism


  • Reactive Oxygen Species
  • Oxygen