Review: Sex and the human placenta: mediating differential strategies of fetal growth and survival

Placenta. 2010 Mar;31 Suppl:S33-9. doi: 10.1016/j.placenta.2009.11.010. Epub 2009 Dec 11.


There are known sex specific differences in fetal and neonatal morbidity and mortality. There are also known differences in birthweight centile with males generally being larger than females at birth. These differences are generally ignored when studying obstetric complications of pregnancy and the mechanisms that confer these differences between the sexes are unknown. Current evidence suggests sex specific adaptation of the placenta may be central to the differences in fetal growth and survival. Our research examining pregnancies complicated by asthma has reported sexually dimorphic differences in fetal growth and survival with males adapting placental function to allow for continued growth in an adverse maternal environment while females reduce growth in an attempt to survive further maternal insults. We have reported sex differences in placental cytokine expression, insulin-like growth factor pathways and the placental response to cortisol in relation to the complication of asthma during pregnancy. More recently we have identified sex specific alterations in placental function in pregnancies complicated by preterm delivery which were associated with neonatal outcome and survival. We propose the sexually dimorphic differences in growth and survival of the fetus are mediated by the sex specific function of the human placenta. This review will present evidence supporting this hypothesis and will argue that to ignore the sex of the placenta is no longer sound scientific practice.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Birth Weight
  • Female
  • Fetal Blood / physiology
  • Fetal Development / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / blood
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Male
  • Maternal-Fetal Exchange
  • Placenta / physiology*
  • Pregnancy
  • Sex Characteristics*
  • Testosterone / blood


  • Testosterone
  • Hydrocortisone