Is maternal microbial metabolism an early-life determinant of health?

Lab Anim (NY). 2018 Sep;47(9):239-243. doi: 10.1038/s41684-018-0129-1. Epub 2018 Aug 24.


Mounting evidence suggests that environmental stress experienced in utero (for example, maternal nutritional deficits) establishes a predisposition in the newborn to the development of chronic diseases later in life. This concept is often referred to as the "fetal origins hypothesis" or "developmental origins of health and disease". Since its first proposal, epigenetics has emerged as an underlying mechanism explaining how environmental cues become gestationally "encoded". Many of the enzymes that impart and maintain epigenetic modifications are highly sensitive to nutrient availability, which can be influenced by the metabolic activities of the intestinal microbiota. Therefore, the maternal microbiome has the potential to influence epigenetics in utero and modulate offspring's long-term health trajectories. Here we summarize the current understanding of the interactions that occur between the maternal gut microbiome and the essential nutrient choline, that is not only required for fetal development and epigenetic regulation but is also a growth substrate for some microbes. Bacteria able to metabolize choline benefit from the presence of this nutrient and compete with the host for its access, which under extreme conditions may elicit signatures of choline deficiency. Another consequence of bacterial choline metabolism is the accumulation of the pro-inflammatory, pro-thrombotic metabolite trimethylamine-N-oxide (TMAO). Finally, we discuss how these different facets of microbial choline metabolism may influence infant development and health trajectories via epigenetic mechanisms and more broadly place a call to action to better understand how maternal microbial metabolism can shape their offspring's propensity to chronic disease development later in life.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Bacteria / metabolism
  • Choline / metabolism*
  • Epigenesis, Genetic*
  • Female
  • Gastrointestinal Microbiome / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Maternal Exposure*
  • Methylamines / metabolism*
  • Nutrients / metabolism*
  • Oxidants / metabolism*


  • Methylamines
  • Oxidants
  • trimethyloxamine
  • Choline