Why Study the Placenta?

The placenta is the organ that forms a connection between the baby and the mother in the womb and plays an important role in controlling signals from the environment. Environmental exposures (such as pollution or nutrition) may lead to changes in the way genes are marked (epigenetics) and expressed in the placenta. These changes may influence the brain and nerve function of the baby in the womb. By measuring these markers of exposure, like “molecular footprints”, we may better understand how environmental exposures during pregnancy influence health and development.

Study aims

  • Examine epigenetic differences in placentae, related to the environment in the womb.

  • Identify what epigenetic changes in human placenta are associated with low birth weight.

  • Characterize the epigenetic changes associated more broadly with normal and abnormal pregnancies.

  • Explore how DNA methylation patterns in placenta are associated with a child’s neurobehavioral outcomes using the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit Network Neurobehavioral Scale (NNNS).

  • Examine how maternal stress factors are associated with specific epigenetic changes in placenta DNA methylation. 

RICHS achievements

  • Contributed to over 40 peer-reviewed publications

  • Contributed to public policy discussion regarding the use of epigenetic and genomic data in risk assessment strategies

  • Contributed to training of the next generation of environmental health researchers, serving as the primary dataset for eight doctoral theses, multiple postdoctoral analyses, and a junior faculty Mentored Research Scientist Development Award application

  • Served as a source of data and samples for three successful NIH R01 grants, a Clinical Investigator Award application, and three applications currently under review

  • Contributed to understanding

    • the fundamental molecular biology of the placenta

    • the impact of environmental exposures on placental epigenetic regulation

    • the relationship between placental epigenetic variation in newborn growth and neurobehavioral outcomes

    • novel methods development