The human placental sexome differs between trophoblast epithelium and villous vessel endothelium

PLoS One. 2013 Oct 29;8(10):e79233. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0079233. eCollection 2013.


Molecular mechanisms underlying sexual dimorphism in mammals, fetal sex influences on intrauterine development, and the sex-biased susceptibility for selected diseases in adulthood are novel areas of current research. As importantly, two decades of multifaceted research has established that susceptibility to many adult disorders originates in utero, commonly secondary to the effects of placental dysfunction. We hypothesized that fetal sex influences gene expression and produces functional differences in human placentas. We thus extended previous studies on sexual dimorphism in mammals, which used RNA isolated from whole tissues, to investigate the effects of sex on four cell-phenotypes within a single key tissue, human placental villi. The cells studied included cytotrophoblasts, syncytiotrophoblast, arterial and venous endothelial cells. The cells were isolated from placentas of male or female fetuses and subjected to microarray analysis. We found that fetal sex differentially affected gene expression in a cell-phenotype dependent manner among all four cell-phenotypes. The markedly enriched pathways in males were identified to be signaling pathways for graft-versus-host disease as well as the immune and inflammatory systems that parallel the reported poorer outcome of male fetuses. Our study is the first to compare global gene expression by microarray analysis in purified, characterized, somatic cells from a single human tissue, i.e. placental villi. Importantly, our findings demonstrate that there are cell-phenotype specific, and tissue-specific, sex-biased responses in the human placenta, suggesting fetal sex should be considered as an independent variable in gene expression analysis of human placental villi.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Chorionic Villi / metabolism
  • Female
  • Fetal Development
  • Gene Expression Regulation
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Phenotype
  • Placenta / cytology*
  • Placenta / metabolism
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Trimester, Third
  • RNA / metabolism
  • Sex Factors
  • Signal Transduction
  • Transcriptome
  • Trophoblasts / cytology
  • Trophoblasts / metabolism


  • RNA

Grant support

This work was funded by the Ph.D. Program Molecular Medicine of the Medical University of Graz (to S.C.). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.