Sound crazy? Not really, say researchers led by Dr. Kjersti Aagaard at the Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children's Hospital, who found that the placenta contains clues about when the baby will be born. According to Time magazine, "Dr. Aagaard is not ready to say that the bacteria living there actually decide when moms-to-be will give birth, but the association is strong enough to make it worth studying further (and she already plans to compare the placental and oral microbiomes of more than 500 women at risk for preterm birth to dig a little deeper)."
Within an hour of delivery, Aagaard and her team collected 320 placentas from women who delivered preterm (at 34-37 weeks), or at term. They analyzed the tissues for the microbes inhabiting them, and concluded that the makeup of the microbial community within the placenta was different between the preterm and term groups.
"We're not suggesting that the differences in the placental microbiome necessarily cause preterm birth; we don't know," says Dr. Aagaard. "All we know is that they are different." The theory is that the varying communities of bacteria—most of which have important day-to-day functions, such as dealing with molecules like vitamins, biotin, and folic acid, which are key for a developing fetus—have different functions, and these affect both the placenta's ability to nurture the fetus and the development of the fetus itself.
It wouldn't be safe to go in and sample the placenta throughout pregnancy, but the placental microbiome most resembled bacteria frequently found in the mouth, Dr. Aagaard reported in the journal Science Translational Medicine. That news is a big deal in the scientific world! Scientists had long thought the placenta was sterile, free of bacteria and other microbes, as opposed to mouths, which have tons of bacteria. Dr. Aagaard's hypothesis: Oral microbes slip into the mother's bloodstream and make their way to the placenta.
So, in the future, a non-invasive mouth swab might be able to help predict whether you might go into labor early or deliver at term. Freaky, yet cool, right?
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