Maternal nutrition during gestation, especially dietary protein intake, is a key determinant in embryonic survival, growth, and development. Low maternal dietary protein intake can cause embryonic losses, intra-uterine growth restriction, and reduced postnatal growth due to a deficiency in specific amino acids that are important for cell metabolism and function. Of note, high maternal dietary protein intake can also result in intra-uterine growth restriction and embryonic death, due to amino acid excesses, as well as the toxicity of ammonia, homocysteine, and H2S that are generated from amino acid catabolism. Maternal protein nutrition has a pronounced impact on fetal programming and alters the expression of genes in the fetal genome. As a precursor to the synthesis of molecules (e.g. nitric oxide, polyamines, and creatine) with cell signaling and metabolic functions, L-arginine (Arg) is essential during pregnancy for growth and development of the conceptus. With inadequate maternal dietary protein intake, Arg and other important amino acids are deficient in mother and fetus. Dietary supplementation of Arg during gestation has been effective in improving embryonic survival and development of the conceptus in many species, including humans, pigs, sheep, mice, and rats. Both the balance among amino acids and their quantity are critical for healthy pregnancies and offspring. Impact statement This review aims at: highlighting adverse effects of elevated levels of ammonia in mother or fetus on embryonic/fetal survival, growth, and development; helping nutritionists and practitioners to understand the mechanisms whereby elevated levels of ammonia in mother or fetus results in embryonic/fetal death, growth restriction, and developmental abnormalities; and bringing, into the attention of nutritionists and practitioners, the problems of excess or inadequate dietary intake of protein or amino acids on pregnancy outcomes in animals and humans. The article provides new, effective means to improve embryonic/fetal survival and growth in mammals.
Keywords: Protein; fetus; growth; nutrition; placenta; reproduction.