Does The Placenta Have Its Own Microbiome? New Study Finds An Answer

Contributing Health Writer By Gretchen Lidicker, M.S.
Contributing Health Writer
Gretchen Lidicker earned her master’s degree in physiology with a focus on alternative medicine from Georgetown University. She is the author of “CBD Oil Everyday Secrets” and “Magnesium Everyday Secrets.”

Image by Luke Mattson / Stocksy

There's a debate going on in the world of microbiome research, and it all has to do with one question: Does the placenta have its own microbiome, or not?

A recent study, published in Nature, concluded that there is no placental microbiome. The University of Cambridge researchers conducted multiple rounds of careful testing on the placentas of over 500 women, which were collected after they gave birth. After eliminating what they believed to be "sources of contamination," they found just one type of bacterium—called Streptococcus agalactiae—on the placentas of around 5% of the samples. S. agalactia is pathogenic and can cause sepsis in newborns, which led the scientists to conclude that there are no beneficial bacteria on the placenta but that it's possible for it to become contaminated with unhealthy bacteria.

As you might suspect based on the title of this article, not everyone is on board with this study's results. For example, Kjersti Aagaard, M.D., Ph.D., a maternal-fetal medicine specialist, explained to Science.com, "The signals the experiment ruled out as 'contamination' are actually evidence of the placental microbiome." She does not believe that the researchers should have disregarded microbes on the placenta because they overlap microbes found in the vagina. Full disclosure, Aagaard is the author of a 2014 study that found bacteria in the placenta. Her team, from the Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children's Hospital in Houston, concluded that there is evidence of a placental microbiome—a direct contradiction of the Nature study mentioned above.

But what's so important about the placental microbiome anyway? Our first exposure to beneficial bacteria, like Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium strains, can have an effect on our health way beyond the first few days of our life. In fact, microbes like those that may or may not be found on the placenta can shape the way we process nutrients and can affect our ability to fend off all types of diseases later in life. In fact, the health and diversity of the microbiome have been connected to obesity, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, and lupus—just to name a few.

By understanding when our first exposure to these microbes actually is, we may be able to develop therapies that set our microbiome health up for success right from the start.

For now, though, the debate over the placental microbiome continues.

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