Fetal baboons convert 18:3n-3 to 22:6n-3 in vivo: A stable isotope tracer study

H. M. Su, M. C. Huang, N. M.R. Saad, P. W. Nathanielsz, J. T. Brenna

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79 Scopus citations


Abstract Using [13C]-tracers and direct fetal doses, we show for the first time that the fetal primate converts α-linolenic acid (18:3) to docosahexaenoic acid (22:6) in vivo, and we estimate the relative bioefficacy of the two substrates for brain 22:6 accretion. Pregnant female baboons consumed a diet free of long chain polyunsaturates (LCP), with n-6/n-3 ratio of 10/1. In the third trimester of pregnancy (normal gestation = 182 days), they were instrumented with chronic indwelling catheters in the maternal femoral artery and the fetal jugular artery. Doses of either [U-13C]-18:3 (18:3*, n = 3) or [U-13C]-22:6 (22:6*, n = 2) were administered directly to the fetus. Blood was collected from fetus and mother, and the fetus was taken by cesarean section when electromyographic activity indicated that parturition was imminent. Fetal liver, brain, retina, and retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) were collected, and 13C fatty acids determined. In 18:3*-dosed animals, labeled n-3 LCP were detected in fetal plasma at 1 day post-dose and peaked at 2-3 days; brain 22:6* was constant at 3, 5, and 9 days post-dose, at 0.57 ± 0.03 percent of dose (%Dose). In 22:6*-dosed animals, brain 22:6* was similar at 3 and 9 days post-dose (4.64 ± 0.43%Dose). From these data, we estimate that preformed 22:6 in the fetal bloodstream is 8-fold more efficacious for brain 22:6 accretion than is 18:3. Retina 22:6* was stable at about 0.0008%Dose from 3 to 9 days in 18:3-dosed animals, but RPE 22:6* dropped over the period; brain results were consistent with these observations. Liver showed about 0.5%Dose in 22:6* and in intermediary n-3 fatty acid metabolites 20:5* and 22:5* at 3 days post-dose, and declined afterward. Back-transfer of labeled fatty acids to the maternal bloodstream was measurable but not sufficient to compromise the quantitative conversion data in fetuses. We conclude 1) primate fetuses have the capacity to convert 18:3 to 22:6 in vivo; 2) fetal brain 22:6* as %Dose plateaus by 3 days post-dose; 3) fetal plasma 22:6 is about 8-fold more effective as a substrate for brain 22:6 accretion compared with 18:3; and 4) the fetal liver is likely to be an important site of 18:3 to 22:6 conversion.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)581-586
Number of pages6
JournalJournal of lipid research
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2001
Externally publishedYes


  • Docosahexaenoic acid
  • In vivo desaturation
  • Isotope ratio mass spectrometry
  • Linolenic acid
  • Lipid nutrition
  • Long chain polyunsaturated fatty acid metabolism
  • Perinatal
  • Polyunsaturated fatty acids
  • Primates
  • Stable isotopes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry
  • Endocrinology
  • Cell Biology


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