Modeling oxygen transport in human placental terminal villi

J Theor Biol. 2011 Dec 21;291:33-41. doi: 10.1016/j.jtbi.2011.09.008. Epub 2011 Sep 22.


Oxygen transport from maternal blood to fetal blood is a primary function of the placenta. Quantifying the effectiveness of this exchange remains key in identifying healthy placentas because of the great variability in capillary number, caliber and position within the villus-even in placentas deemed clinically "normal". By considering villous membrane to capillary membrane transport, stationary oxygen diffusion can be numerically solved in terminal villi represented by digital photomicrographs. We aim to provide a method to determine whether and if so to what extent diffusional screening may operate in placental villi. Segmented digital photomicrographs of terminal villi from the Pregnancy, Infection and Nutrition study in North Carolina 2002 are used as a geometric basis for solving the stationary diffusion equation. Constant maternal villous oxygen concentration and perfect fetal capillary membrane absorption are assumed. System efficiency is defined as the ratio of oxygen flux into a villus and the sum of the capillary areas contained within. Diffusion screening is quantified by comparing numerical and theoretical maximum oxygen fluxes. A strong link between various measures of villous oxygen transport efficiency and the number of capillaries within a villus is established. The strength of diffusional screening is also related to the number of capillaries within a villus. Our measures of diffusional efficiency are shown to decrease as a function of the number of capillaries per villus. This low efficiency, high capillary number relationship supports our hypothesis that diffusional screening is present in this system. Oxygen transport per capillary is reduced when multiple capillaries compete for diffusing oxygen. A complete picture of oxygen fluxes, capillary and villus areas is obtainable and presents an opportunity for future work.

MeSH terms

  • Biological Transport / physiology
  • Capillaries / metabolism
  • Chorionic Villi / blood supply*
  • Diffusion
  • Female
  • Fetal Blood / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Models, Biological*
  • Oxygen / blood*
  • Oxygen Consumption / physiology
  • Photomicrography / methods
  • Pregnancy


  • Oxygen