ASCL2 reciprocally controls key trophoblast lineage decisions during hemochorial placenta development

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2021 Mar 9;118(10):e2016517118. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2016517118.


Invasive trophoblast cells are critical to spiral artery remodeling in hemochorial placentation. Insufficient trophoblast cell invasion and vascular remodeling can lead to pregnancy disorders including preeclampsia, preterm birth, and intrauterine growth restriction. Previous studies in mice identified achaete-scute homolog 2 (ASCL2) as essential to extraembryonic development. We hypothesized that ASCL2 is a critical and conserved regulator of invasive trophoblast cell lineage development. In contrast to the mouse, the rat possesses deep intrauterine trophoblast cell invasion and spiral artery remodeling similar to human placentation. In this study, we investigated invasive/extravillous trophoblast (EVT) cell differentiation using human trophoblast stem (TS) cells and a loss-of-function mutant Ascl2 rat model. ASCL2 transcripts are expressed in the EVT column and junctional zone, which represent tissue sources of invasive trophoblast progenitor cells within human and rat placentation sites, respectively. Differentiation of human TS cells into EVT cells resulted in significant up-regulation of ASCL2 and several other transcripts indicative of EVT cell differentiation. Disruption of ASCL2 impaired EVT cell differentiation, as indicated by cell morphology and transcript profiles. RNA sequencing analysis of ASCL2-deficient trophoblast cells identified both down-regulation of EVT cell-associated transcripts and up-regulation of syncytiotrophoblast-associated transcripts, indicative of dual activating and repressing functions. ASCL2 deficiency in the rat impacted placental morphogenesis, resulting in junctional zone dysgenesis and failed intrauterine trophoblast cell invasion. ASCL2 acts as a critical and conserved regulator of invasive trophoblast cell lineage development and a modulator of the syncytiotrophoblast lineage.

Keywords: differentiation; invasion; placenta; trophoblast.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Basic Helix-Loop-Helix Transcription Factors / metabolism*
  • Cell Differentiation / physiology
  • Cell Lineage / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Placentation / physiology*
  • Pregnancy / metabolism*
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Stem Cells / metabolism
  • Trophoblasts / metabolism*


  • ASCL2 protein, human
  • Ascl2 protein, rat
  • Basic Helix-Loop-Helix Transcription Factors