Animal scientist studies effects of maternal nutrition on offspring

Kristen Govoni
Kristen Govoni

Associate professor Kristen Govoni has spent the majority of her career at UConn, having earned her BS, MS, and Ph.D. degrees in animal science in the College. Her research focuses on animal growth, development and health.

For the past eight years, Govoni has been involved in a collaboration with two other faculty in the Department of Animal Science, Professor Steven Zinn and Associate Professor Sarah Reed. Using sheep as a model, the team has recently received their fifth USDA grant to examine the effects of maternal diet during gestation on offspring health and growth, with a goal of improving livestock health and production efficiency.

Their research has demonstrated that overfeeding and restricted feeding during gestation adversely affects offspring, resulting in decreased muscle growth and increased fat, as well as changes in metabolism. Specifically, a decrease in the ability to regulate and utilize glucose and changes in hormones such as leptin, which regulates satiety, lead to altered overall body composition and metabolism in offspring.

“We are looking at fetal and postnatal growth, and because of our interest in production animals, we are looking at muscle and fat development,” Govoni says.

“We often see similar negative effects of both restricted and over feeding on growth and metabolism, and they both have similar phenotypes, but we’re finding the mechanisms, whether it be specific proteins or metabolites, differ between the diets.”

For sheep producers in western states where animals graze on the range, undernutrition is an issue. In the Northeast, where sheep are more intensively managed and where the animals spend more time in barns during the winter breeding and pregnancy season, overfeeding is more of a concern as grain is nutrient dense. Overfeeding not only results in negative health impacts for offspring, it is more costly for producers.

The fourth project has one year remaining. The group teamed up with faculty at North Dakota State University, where the North Dakota team had received a USDA seed grant to examine maternal nutrient restriction and realimentation and its effects on uterine development, nutrient transfer and blood flow between mother and fetus. The UConn team added a half-million-dollar USDA grant to the project, studying the effects of maternal nutrient restriction and realimentation on offspring metabolism in the liver, muscle and blood.

“I’ve truly enjoyed the collaborative effort both with our team at UConn and collaborators at other institutions,” Govoni remarks. “We’ve had a lot of opportunities to meet with other scientists in the field, and I find that everybody in the fetal programming area is eager to work with each other and share their information. That has been exciting.”

Sheep10182019With the newest USDA grant, also totaling a half-million dollars, the team is examining the multi-generational effects of maternal diet on offspring. They plan to investigate these findings to determine whether the offspring use nutrients differently or if they are biologically programmed to consume more food. They will also determine the impact of maternal diet on inflammation and oxidative stress in the offspring.

“We see those effects in offspring when they are born or during early growth, but a lot of these effects are persistent into adulthood and there is evidence they are multigenerational,” Govoni says. “This next five years will really give us a better idea of the long-term impact of inadequate feeding during gestation. If these changes are permanent, we need to identify new ways to manage offspring for the healthiest animals and most efficient production.”

When asked if this type of research could relate to obesity in human health, Govoni responds, “Our work has focused on improving livestock production, as well as improving animal welfare and reducing the environmental impact. However, sheep are an accepted biomedical model, so our findings can be translated to similar growth and metabolic challenges in humans.”

The team recently attended the Aspen/Snowmass Perinatal Biology Symposium in Colorado, where both animal and medical scientists met to report and exchange research findings. Collaborator Sarah Reed presented resent findings on the negative effects of maternal diet on offspring metabolism and inflammation. Ph.D. student Brandon Smith presented a poster on the changes in metabolites in liver, muscle and blood in response to maternal nutrient restriction and realimentation.

“This meeting is an excellent opportunity for scientists in the field of fetal programming to share current, unpublished research and develop new and continue existing collaborations,” Govoni says. “It is small, intensive meetings such as this one that allow the field to advance more quickly in a collaborative manner.”

While Govoni is focused on her research, she is just as passionate about mentoring the next generation of scientists. She says, “We want to give undergraduates the hands-on experience with animals and research, but also give them an appreciation of animal agriculture and research that goes into production. We do all the care and feeding of these animals ourselves, and it provides an excellent opportunity for students to learn all the components of research, from designing the experiments to animal and laboratory work.”

“These projects cannot be completed without our army of undergraduate and graduate students, as well as the animal science farm managers and staff who have supported us through all these studies. Our work is truly a team effort.”

Govoni also enjoys being a mentor to women in science, currently in her fifth year serving as faculty director of the UConn Women in Math, Science and Engineering (WiMSE) learning community.

By Kim Colavito Markesich