Maternal influences on fetal microbial colonization and immune development

Pediatr Res. 2015 Jan;77(1-2):189-95. doi: 10.1038/pr.2014.163. Epub 2014 Oct 13.


While critical for normal development, the exact timing of establishment of the intestinal microbiome is unknown. For example, although preterm labor and birth have been associated with bacterial colonization of the amniotic cavity and fetal membranes for many years, the prevailing dogma of a sterile intrauterine environment during normal term pregnancies has been challenged more recently. While found to be a key contributor of evolution in the animal kingdom, maternal transmission of commensal bacteria may also constitute a critical process during healthy pregnancies in humans with yet unclear developmental importance. Metagenomic sequencing has elucidated a rich placental microbiome in normal term pregnancies likely providing important metabolic and immune contributions to the growing fetus. Conversely, an altered microbial composition during pregnancy may produce aberrant metabolites impairing fetal brain development and life-long neurological outcomes. Here we review the current understanding of microbial colonization at the feto-maternal interface and explain how normal gut colonization drives a balanced neonatal mucosal immune system, while dysbiosis contributes to aberrant immune function early in life and beyond. We discuss how maternal genetics, diet, medications, and probiotics inform the fetal microbiome in preparation for perinatal and postnatal bacterial colonization.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Female
  • Fetus / immunology*
  • Fetus / microbiology*
  • Humans
  • Immune System / embryology*
  • Immune System / growth & development
  • Maternal-Fetal Exchange / immunology*
  • Microbiota / immunology*
  • Models, Immunological*
  • Placenta / microbiology*
  • Pregnancy