An ode to the placenta
Most of us are roughly familiar regarding how we came to be here. Having dispelled the stories of storks or perhaps overcoming the anxiety caused by annoying by siblings (usually older ones) who try to convince you that you were found by mum and dad in a rubbish bin, growing up has probably come with a lot of new and interesting knowledge, some of which is to do with the science behind how babies really do come to be.
However, this post isn’t aimed at addressing the true meaning of conception and at what point during development there really is ‘life’. That’s a deeper and more contentious topic for experts in the field to debate about, so I apologise if that’s what you are here for. Instead, this post is written in recognition of an organ that isn’t often given the spotlight that it really does deserve.
Introducing… [drum roll please!] … The Placenta!!!
To think of it simply, the placenta does the jobs of many of our major organs. From providing the developing foetus with the oxygen and nutrition it needs to filtering out foreign molecules and acting as a barrier against disease or infection that might be circulating in a mother’s blood, it is constantly adjusting to keep things in balance.
One way it does this is by producing a range of hormones that affect a mother’s physiology, including some which change how her body responds to insulin and glucose as well as ones which affect her appetite. This then has downstream effects on the foetus growing on the other end.
Given that this organ does some pretty complex jobs, it is not surprising then that when it comes to the placenta, there are some interesting differences between species. There are approximately 4000 known species of placental mammals (which are one group of the three main groups of mammals and the most diverse). When we look at the shape of the placenta in these mammals, there are three different structures the placental can take.
Humans, other species of primates and rodents have the most invasive placenta of the three. The placenta grows in a way that brings it into to very close contact with a mother’s blood supply. This has its advantages but some scientists have suggested it could have some problems too but there still needs to be more work done to really understand what’s going on.
The placenta’s place in the world
As humans we try to explain things that happen around us. It’s no different with the placenta. Some cultures believe it to be a sibling of the newborn. Other cultures treat it as something with supernatural properties. There are also strong beliefs around the health benefits of consuming the placenta, most commonly by steaming, drying and crushing it so it can be put in a capsule. But no one still really knows for sure and science is still a little sceptical about it all. Given that it is the filter between the outside world and the growing foetus, it does contain a lot of unfriendly bacteria and chemicals.
So, what DO we know?
What we do know is that we don’t know enough. Hopefully one day, with initiatives such as the Human Placenta Project, we’ll gain useful and life-changing knowledge that will go on to change the lives of mothers and babies around the world.