Open Access Research article

A gene network switch enhances the oxidative capacity of ovine skeletal muscle during late fetal development

Keren Byrne1, Tony Vuocolo1, Cedric Gondro2, Jason D White3, Noelle E Cockett4, Tracy Hadfield4, Christopher A Bidwell5, Jolena N Waddell5 and Ross L Tellam1*

Author Affiliations

1 CSIRO Livestock Industries, Queensland Bioscience Precinct, 306 Carmody Rd., St. Lucia, 4067, Queensland, Australia

2 Department of Animal Science, University of New England, Armidale, 2351, NSW, Australia

3 Department of Veterinary Science, The University of Melbourne, Melbourne, 3010, VIC, Australia

4 Department of Animal, Dairy and Veterinary Science, Utah State University, Logan, Utah, 84322-4815, USA

5 Department of Animal Sciences, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana, 47907-20242, USA

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BMC Genomics 2010, 11:378  doi:10.1186/1471-2164-11-378

Published: 15 June 2010



The developmental transition between the late fetus and a newborn animal is associated with profound changes in skeletal muscle function as it adapts to the new physiological demands of locomotion and postural support against gravity. The mechanisms underpinning this adaption process are unclear but are likely to be initiated by changes in hormone levels. We tested the hypothesis that this developmental transition is associated with large coordinated changes in the transcription of skeletal muscle genes.


Using an ovine model, transcriptional profiling was performed on Longissimus dorsi skeletal muscle taken at three fetal developmental time points (80, 100 and 120 d of fetal development) and two postnatal time points, one approximately 3 days postpartum and a second at 3 months of age. The developmental time course was dominated by large changes in expression of 2,471 genes during the interval between late fetal development (120 d fetal development) and 1-3 days postpartum. Analysis of the functions of genes that were uniquely up-regulated in this interval showed strong enrichment for oxidative metabolism and the tricarboxylic acid cycle indicating enhanced mitochondrial activity. Histological examination of tissues from these developmental time points directly confirmed a marked increase in mitochondrial activity between the late fetal and early postnatal samples. The promoters of genes that were up-regulated during this fetal to neonatal transition were enriched for estrogen receptor 1 and estrogen related receptor alpha cis-regulatory motifs. The genes down-regulated during this interval highlighted de-emphasis of an array of functions including Wnt signaling, cell adhesion and differentiation. There were also changes in gene expression prior to this late fetal - postnatal transition and between the two postnatal time points. The former genes were enriched for functions involving the extracellular matrix and immune response while the latter principally involved functions associated with transcriptional regulation of metabolic processes.


It is concluded that during late skeletal muscle development there are substantial and coordinated changes in the transcription of a large number of genes many of which are probably triggered by increased estrogen levels. These changes probably underpin the adaption of muscle to new physiological demands in the postnatal environment.