Carl Zimmer writes: Recently a team of pathologists at Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands carried out an experiment that might seem doomed to failure.
They collected tissue from 26 women who had died during or just after pregnancy. All of them had been carrying sons. The pathologists then stained the samples to check for Y chromosomes.
Essentially, the scientists were looking for male cells in female bodies. And their search was stunningly successful.
As reported last month in the journal Molecular Human Reproduction, the researchers found cells with Y-chromosomes in every tissue sample they examined. These male cells were certainly uncommon — at their most abundant, they only made up about 1 in every 1,000 cells. But male cells were present in every organ that the scientists studied: brains, hearts, kidneys and others.
In the 1990s, scientists found the first clues that cells from both sons and daughters can escape from the uterus and spread through a mother’s body. They dubbed the phenomenon fetal microchimerism, after the chimera, a monster from Greek mythology that was part lion, goat and dragon.
But fetal cells don’t just drift passively. Studies of female mice show that fetal cells that end up in their hearts develop into cardiac tissue. “They’re becoming beating heart cells,” said Dr. J. Lee Nelson, an expert on microchimerism at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.
The new study suggests that women almost always acquire fetal cells each time they get pregnant. They have been detected as early as seven weeks into a pregnancy. In later years, the cells may disappear from their bodies, but sometimes the cells settle in for a lifetime. [Continue reading…]