Intrauterine programming of obesity and type 2 diabetes

Diabetologia. 2019 Oct;62(10):1789-1801. doi: 10.1007/s00125-019-4951-9. Epub 2019 Aug 27.


The type 2 diabetes epidemic and one of its predisposing factors, obesity, are major influences on global health and economic burden. It is accepted that genetics and the current environment contribute to this epidemic; however, in the last two decades, both human and animal studies have consolidated considerable evidence supporting the 'developmental programming' of these conditions, specifically by the intrauterine environment. Here, we review the various in utero exposures that are linked to offspring obesity and diabetes in later life, including epidemiological insights gained from natural historical events, such as the Dutch Hunger Winter, the Chinese famine and the more recent Quebec Ice Storm. We also describe the effects of gestational exposure to endocrine disruptors, maternal infection and smoking to the fetus in relation to metabolic programming. Causal evidence from animal studies, motivated by human observations, is also discussed, as well as some of the proposed underlying molecular mechanisms for developmental programming of obesity and type 2 diabetes, including epigenetics (e.g. DNA methylation and histone modifications) and microRNA interactions. Finally, we examine the effects of non-pharmacological interventions, such as improving maternal dietary habits and/or increasing physical activity, on the offspring epigenome and metabolic outcomes.

Keywords: Developmental programming; Epigenetic variation; Intrauterine programming; Life course development; Maternal exposures; MicroRNAs; Obesity; Paternal exposures; Review; Type 2 diabetes.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type 2 / genetics
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type 2 / metabolism*
  • Epigenesis, Genetic / genetics
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Maternal Exposure
  • Obesity / genetics
  • Obesity / metabolism*
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects
  • Uterus / metabolism*