Evolution of the cell-cell communication network at the fetal-maternal interface: an introduction to the project


Silvia Basanta

Ph.D. student (Adv. Mihaela Pavličev)
Unit for Theoretical Biology, Department of Evolutionary Biology
University of Vienna

Project funded by the FWF.


A distinctive feature of the placenta in eutherian mammals is its high interspecific variation, and the evolutionary causes behind it are in dispute. One crucial way this variability materializes is the degree of fetal-maternal embedment, which depends on a complex interplay between cells from the maternal and extra-embryonic origin. Invasive placentation evolved concurrently with implantation and the origin of a new maternal cell type, the decidual cell, in eutherians' stem lineage. Subsequently, non-invasive and medium-invasive forms of placentation have appeared in several mammalian lineages. Recent research has revealed candidate genes and genomic signatures of selection that may be underpinning these evolutionary changes, but the cell-level mechanisms responsible remain mostly unknown.

This Ph.D. project aims to shed light on the changes in the cell-to-cell cross-talk at the fetal-maternal interface underlying the spectrum of invasiveness and the evolution of this phenotype. To achieve this, we pretend to obtain a comparative cell type inventory of the FM-interface of highly informative species in terms of their placental phenotype (including non-model species, such as the opossum or the cow). Then, we will assess the cell-cell communication network. We rely on single-cell sequencing technology and data analysis for this. The final purpose is to identify interactions that are actively contributing to establish a difference between the development of an invasive or a non-invasive placenta and to validate some of them (in-vitro and in-vivo).

Nest III (Image kindly provided by Sue Benner)