A Deep Link Between Mother and Child

Mother’s Day is celebrated in many parts of the world, and often during the month of May. So, to honor mothers everywhere, DiscovHER takes a look at one of the less understood ways that mothers and children are connected.

We often hear how children have their father’s eyes or their mother’s nose. But, what about a deeper bond: being linked by cells? Studies have shown that during pregnancy, cells from the fetus can pass through the placenta and become part of the mother’s tissue. This process is called fetal-maternal microchimerism.

Since the 1990s, when this phenomenon was first observed, researchers have been working to understand how fetal-maternal microchimerism developed and evolved, how frequent it is, how it affects mothers and more. To do this, studies often search for Y chromosomes in mothers’ bodies, as Y chromosomes left by sons are easier to spot in women than the X chromosome cells that may be left behind by daughters.

What these studies have found is that these fetal cells aren’t just travelling passively through the body, but that they are present in many different organs of the body. In 2012, researchers at the Hutchinson Center laboratory of J. Lee Nelson examined the brains of 59 deceased older women. They found that 63% of these women had male DNA in their brains, presumably from when they were carrying their sons.

Then, in 2015, a study conducted at the Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands found that of their test sample (26 women who had died during pregnancy or just after giving birth and who had all been carrying sons) Y chromosomes were found in 100% of the tissue sample examined from brains, hearts, kidneys and other organs.

Although it is becoming clear that microchimerism is very common in women, if not universal, there is still much to understand, particularly regarding how microchimerism affects women’s health. Some studies have found clues that fetal cells in a mother may drive cancer, while others suggest the exact opposite. Amy Boddy, a geneticist at Arizona State University states, “In each instance of a disease, it seems like there is this paradox.”

Scientists are just starting to grasp how microchimerism works and its affects on women, and many new studies are being done to answer the questions that are arising. But, for now, let’s just say it is fascinating to see just how deep the Mother and child connection really is.

What do you think about this research? Let us know @4womeninscience

For Women in Science

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