New Elise Richter FWF Project: Why is childbirth so difficult in humans


Barbara Fischer

Unit for Theoretical Biology
Department of Evolutionary Biology

Project number: V 826 Richter-Programm (inkl. Richter-PEEK)

Academic Abstract

Wider research context / theoretical framework
Compared to other primates, birth is a remarkably painful and difficult process in humans, associated with high maternal and neonatal mortality and morbidity. The difficulty stems from the tight fit between the fetal head and shoulders and the maternal pelvis.

Hypotheses / research questions / objectives
The central question of the proposed project is an important unanswered question in evolutionary anthropology and evolutionary medicine: Why could a birth process associated with such high mortality evolve, and why does it still persist? I will test a novel hypothesis, proposing pelvic floor function as the relevant selective force that is keeping humans from evolving wider birth canals. Understanding how maternal and fetal traits have been affected by selection is of importance for anthropology, but it also has immediate implications for obstetric practice. In the second part of this project, I will apply the findings from this evolutionary research to develop a novel method for obstetrics to reliably predict feto-pelvic disproportion, a mismatch between fetal and pelvic dimensions, which makes vaginal birth impossible. This work will enable better-informed decision-making regarding the preferred mode of birth: Caesarean section or vaginal birth.

Approach / methods
To achieve these objectives, I will conduct a large-scale study of 3D pelvic morphology based on clinical datasets. I will integrate imaging data of human bodies with genetic data and birth-associated data, and apply state-of-the art 3D morphometrics, multivariate statistics, and machine learning methods to analyze them.

Level of originality / innovation
This project is a novel attempt to answer the long-standing question why birth evolved to be so difficult in humans. This research constitutes an unprecedented connection between evolutionary biology and obstetrics, and will thereby lead to important new insights on the evolution of birth and women’s health. Only recently, this research has become possible due to advances in data accessibility and methodology: Large clinical databases containing 3D images of human bodies and novel statistical methods to handle these high-dimensional data have become available.

Primary researchers involved
Barbara Fischer, the PI of this project, is an evolutionary biologist with a background in mathematics and statistics and extensive research experience in evolutionary theory, phenotypic evolution and human birth. With her background she is uniquely positioned to use these novel data and methods to reach the goals of this project.