Tuesday, March 14, 2006

In Utero Tug O'War

No, surviving members of Nirvana are not fighting over royalties with Courtney Love, rather the NYTs looks at a new fascinating theory about pregnancy developed by evolutionary biologist David Haig.
Pregnancy can be the most wonderful experience life has to offer. But it can also be dangerous. Around the world, an estimated 529,000 women a year die during pregnancy or childbirth. Ten million suffer injuries, infection or disability.

To David Haig, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard, these grim statistics raise a profound puzzle about pregnancy.

"Pregnancy is absolutely central to reproduction, and yet pregnancy doesn't seem to work very well," he said. "If you think about the heart or the kidney, they're wonderful bits of engineering that work day in and day out for years and years. But pregnancy is associated with all sorts of medical problems. What's the difference?"

The difference is that the heart and the kidney belong to a single individual, while pregnancy is a two-person operation. And this operation does not run in perfect harmony. Instead, Dr. Haig argues, a mother and her unborn child engage in an unconscious struggle over the nutrients she will provide it.

Dr. Haig's theory has been gaining support in recent years, as scientists examine the various ways pregnancy can go wrong.

His theory also explains a baffling feature of developing fetuses: the copies of some genes are shut down, depending on which parent they come from. Dr. Haig has also argued that the same evolutionary conflicts can linger on after birth and even influence the adult brain. New research has offered support to this idea as well. By understanding these hidden struggles, scientists may be able to better understand psychological disorders like depression and autism.
This is a must read. The implications of this research, if its experimental results in mice are similar in humans, is astounding.