One of the central unresolved questions in mammalian biology is how a mother knows when to give birth. Scientists studying mice have now found evidence that the maturing lungs of a fetus release a protein that initiates the process.
If also true in women, the finding could provide insight into the causes of premature births and suggest ways of preventing them. About 6 to 10 percent of all pregnancies end with prematurely born babies, who frequently struggle to survive even with intensive medical care.
There's been a long debate among reproductive biologists about whether the fetus or the mother controls the timing of birth. The new research, led by Carole R. Mendelson of University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, suggests that the fetus is in charge.
This conclusion stems from studies of surfactant protein-A (SP-A), which in newborns appears to defend the lungs against microbes. Mendelson's colleague Jennifer C. Condon found that the concentration