Key Points

  • Maternal hepcidin but not embryo hepcidin controls embryo iron endowment in mouse models under physiological conditions

  • Hepcidin-mediated maternal iron restriction during pregnancy causes embryo anemia, tissue iron deficiency and decreased weight

Iron disorders are associated with adverse pregnancy outcomes, yet iron homeostatic mechanisms during pregnancy are poorly understood. In humans and rodents, the iron-regulatory hormone hepcidin is profoundly decreased in pregnant mothers, which is thought to ensure adequate iron availability for transfer across placenta. However, the fetal liver also produces hepcidin, which may regulate fetal iron endowment by controlling placental iron export. To determine the relative contribution of maternal vs embryo hepcidin to the control of embryo iron endowment in iron-sufficient or iron-overloaded mice, we generated combinations of mothers and embryos that had or lacked hepcidin. We found that maternal, but not embryonic hepcidin determined embryo and placental iron endowment in a healthy pregnancy. We further determined that inflammation can counteract pregnancy-dependent suppression of maternal hepcidin. To establish how essential maternal hepcidin suppression is for embryo iron homeostasis, we mimicked the range of maternal hepcidin activity by administering a hepcidin peptide mimetic to pregnant mice. This also allowed us to determine the effect of isolated maternal hepcidin excess on pregnancy, in the absence of other confounding effects of inflammation. Higher doses of hepcidin agonist caused maternal iron restriction and anemia, lower placenta and embryo weight, embryo anemia, and increased embryo mortality. Low agonist doses did not cause maternal anemia but still adversely affected the embryo, causing anemia, tissue iron deficiency including in the brain, and decreased weight. Our studies demonstrate that suppression of maternal hepcidin during pregnancy is essential for maternal and embryo iron homeostasis and health.

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