Background & Aims: Maternal liver exhibits robust adaptations to pregnancy to accommodate the metabolic needs of developing and growing placenta and fetus by largely unknown mechanisms. We found that achaete-scute homolog-like 1 (Ascl1), a gene encoding a basic helix-loop-helix transcription factor essential for neuronal development, is highly activated in maternal hepatocytes during the second half of gestation in mice. Methods: To investigate whether and how Ascl1 plays a pregnancy-dependent role, we deleted the Ascl1 gene specifically in maternal hepatocytes from mid-gestation until term. Results: As a result, we identified multiple Ascl1-dependent phenotypes. Maternal livers lacking Ascl1 exhibited aberrant hepatocyte structure, increased hepatocyte proliferation, enlarged hepatocyte size, reduced albumin production, and elevated release of liver enzymes, indicating maternal liver dysfunction. Simultaneously, maternal pancreas and spleen and the placenta displayed marked overgrowth; and the maternal ceca microbiome showed alterations in relative abundance of several bacterial subpopulations. Moreover, litters born from maternal hepatic Ascl1-deficient dams experienced abnormal postnatal growth after weaning, implying an adverse pregnancy outcome. Mechanistically, we found that maternal hepatocytes deficient for Ascl1 exhibited robust activation of insulin-like growth factor 2 expression, which may contribute to the Ascl1-dependent phenotypes widespread in maternal and uteroplacental compartments. Conclusions: In summary, we demonstrate that maternal liver, via activating Ascl1 expression, modulates the adaptations of maternal organs and the growth of the placenta to maintain a healthy pregnancy. Our studies reveal Ascl1 as a novel and critical regulator of the physiology of pregnancy.
Dr. Guoli Dai is an Associate Professor in the Department of Biology, School of Science, Center for Developmental and Regenerative Biology, in Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). His research interest focuses on molecular and cellular mechanisms controlling liver growth and regeneration.