Understanding the rules of life

Bioscience for sustainable agriculture and food

Bioscience for an integrated understanding of health

Category: Standard Studentships

Domestication and placental structure in equids, camelids & bovids

Project No.2220

Primary Supervisor

Dr Neil J. Gostling- University of Southampton


Dr Katherine A. Williams – University of Portsmouth

Prof Rohan Lewis – University of Southampton


The most crucial organ to support a successful pregnancy is the placenta.

It allows the transport of nutrients and oxygen to the fetus, and waste products, including CO2, back to the mother. For such a crucial structure, there are remarkably different morphologies observed across the mammals. At the macroscopic level we see discoid, cotyledonary, diffuse, and zonal placentas, and 5 histologically distinct morphologies (epitheliochorial, synepitheliochorial, endotheliochorial, hemodichorial hemotrichorial) within these macrotypes. This project will explore the different ways biological structures can achieve

the same outcomes and help explain why placental structures are so diverse. These studies will allow us to understand how and why the placenta evolved in the ways it has, and also how different placental structures relate to function. These functional and morphological results can then be mapped to phylogenies, to understand the role of the placenta in ungulate development and evolution. This is of particular interest, as certain small populations of ungulates were domesticated, and the resulting diversity of structure could be due to selection for captivity, and the inbreeding that ensued. Placentas from equid, camelid, and bovid (farm and zoo) species, including hybrid pregnancies (e.g. mules), will be examined using a range of sampling methods (e.g. CT; serial blockface EM) to elucidate the differences in the 2 branches of ungulates, perissodactyls, and, artiodactyls. This is of interesting evolutionary significance because these groups are phylogenetically closely related, yet show markedly different placental morphologies. Beyond evolution and comparative anatomy questions, many of these taxa are agriculturally important. Ensuring successful healthy reproduction reduces the need for veterinary intervention, potentially impacting commercial farming in a climatically, and politicaly, changing world. The project aligns closely with Understanding the rules of life, Bioscience for sustainable agriculture and food, and aspects of Bioscience for an integrated understanding of health.