Ergot alkaloid exposure during gestation alters: 3. Fetal growth, muscle fiber development, and miRNA transcriptome1

J Anim Sci. 2019 Jul 2;97(7):3153-3168. doi: 10.1093/jas/skz153.


The objective of this study was to assess how exposure to ergot alkaloids during 2 stages of gestation alters fetal growth, muscle fiber formation, and miRNA expression. Pregnant ewes (n = 36; BW = 83.26 ± 8.14 kg; 4/group; 9 groups) were used in a 2 × 2 factorial arrangement with 2 tall fescue seed treatments [endophyte-infected (E+) vs. endophyte-free (E-)] fed during 2 stages of gestation (MID, days 35 to 85 vs. LATE, days 86 to 133), which created 4 possible treatments (E-/E-, E+/E-, E-/E+, or E+/E+). Ewes were individually fed a total mixed ration containing E+ or E- fescue seed according to treatment assignment. Terminal surgeries were conducted on day 133 of gestation for the collection of fetal measurements and muscle samples. Data were analyzed as a 2 × 2 factorial with fescue treatment, stage of gestation, and 2-way interaction as fixed effects. Fetuses exposed to E+ seed during LATE gestation had reduced (P = 0.0020) fetal BW by 10% compared with E- fetuses; however, fetal body weight did not differ (P = 0.41) with E+ exposure during MID gestation. Fetuses from ewes fed E+ seed during MID and LATE gestation tended to have smaller (P = 0.058) kidney weights compared with E- fetuses. Liver weight was larger (P = 0.0069) in fetuses fed E- during LATE gestation compared with E+. Fetal brain weight did not differ by fescue treatment fed during MID (P = 0.36) or LATE (P = 0.40) gestation. The percentage of brain to empty body weight (EBW) was greater (P = 0.0048) in fetuses from ewes fed E+ fescue seed during LATE gestation, which is indicative of intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR). Primary muscle fiber number was lower (P = 0.0005) in semitendinosus (STN) of fetuses exposed to E+ during MID and/or LATE gestation compared with E-/E-. miRNA sequencing showed differential expression (P < 0.010) of 6 novel miRNAs including bta-miR-652_R+1, mdo-miR-22-3p, bta-miR-1277_R-1, ppy-miR-133a_L+1_1ss5TG, hsa-miR-129-1-3p, and ssc-miR-615 in fetal STN muscle. These miRNA are associated with glucose transport, insulin signaling, intracellular ATP, hypertension, or adipogenesis. This work supports the hypothesis that E+ tall fescue seed fed during late gestation reduces fetal weight and causes asymmetrical growth, which is indicative of IUGR. Changes in primary fiber number and miRNA of STN indicate that exposure to E+ fescue fed during MID and LATE gestation alters fetal muscle development that may affect postnatal muscle growth and meat quality.

Keywords: ergot alkaloids; fescue toxicosis; miRNA; muscle fiber; sheep.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / drug effects
  • Brain / growth & development
  • Endophytes / physiology*
  • Ergot Alkaloids / toxicity*
  • Ergotamines / toxicity
  • Female
  • Festuca / chemistry*
  • Festuca / microbiology
  • Fetal Development / drug effects
  • Fetal Weight / drug effects
  • MicroRNAs / genetics*
  • Muscle Fibers, Skeletal / drug effects
  • Placentation
  • Pregnancy
  • Seeds / chemistry
  • Seeds / microbiology
  • Sheep / growth & development
  • Sheep / physiology*
  • Transcriptome / drug effects*


  • Ergot Alkaloids
  • Ergotamines
  • MicroRNAs
  • ergovaline