In the fetus, adipose tIssue comprises both brown and white adipocytes for which brown fat is characterised as possessing the unique uncoupling protein (UCP)1. The dual characteristics of fetal fat reflect its critical role at birth in providing lipid that is mobilised rapidly following activation of UCP1 upon cold exposure to the extra-uterine environment. A key stage in the maturation of fetal fat is the gradual rise in the abundance of UCP1. For species with a mature hypothalamic-pituitary axis at birth there is a gradual increase in the amount and activity of UCP1 during late gestation, in conjunction with an increase in the plasma concentrations of catecholamines, thyroid hormones, cortisol, leptin and prolactin. These may act individually, or in combination, to promote UCP1 expression and, following the post-partum surge in each hormone, UCP1 abundance attains maximal amounts. Adipose tIssue grows in the fetus at a much lower rate than in the postnatal period. However, its growth is under marked nutritional constraints and, in contrast to many other fetal organs that are unaffected by nutritional manipulation, fat mass can be significantly altered by changes in maternal and, therefore, fetal nutrition. Fat deposition in the fetus is enhanced during late gestation following a previous period of nutrient restriction up to mid gestation. This is accompanied by increased mRNA abundance for the receptors of IGF-I and IGF-II. In contrast, increasing maternal nutrition in late gestation results in less adipose tIssue deposition but enhanced UCP1 abundance. The pronounced nutritional sensitivity of fetal adipose tIssue to both increased and decreased maternal nutrition may explain why the consequences of an adverse nutritional environment persist into later life.
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