Moderate prenatal ethanol exposure in the rat promotes kidney cell apoptosis, nephron deficits, and sex-specific kidney dysfunction in adult offspring

Lisa K. Akison, Megan E. Probyn, Stephen P. Gray, Louise A. Cullen-McEwen, Karrona Tep, Sarah E. Steane, Glenda C. Gobe, Mary E. Wlodek, John F. Bertram, Karen M. Moritz

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Alcohol during pregnancy can impair fetal development and result in offspring with neurodevelopmental deficits. Less is known about how low to moderate alcohol exposure can affect other organs, such as the kidney. Here, the effects of moderate ethanol exposure throughout pregnancy on kidney development were examined using a rat model. Rats were fed a liquid diet containing 6% ethanol (vol/vol) or control (0% ethanol) throughout pregnancy. Kidneys were collected at embryonic day (E) 20 or postnatal day (PN) 30 and total glomerular (nephron) number determined using unbiased stereology. Kidney function was examined in offspring at 8 and 19 months. At E20, fetuses exposed to ethanol had fewer nephrons with increased apoptosis. Alcohol exposure caused kidney dysregulation of pro- (Bax) and anti- (Bcl-2) apoptotic factors, and reduced expression of the cell proliferation marker, Ki67. Prenatal alcohol decreased expression of Gdnf and Tgfb1, important regulators of branching morphogenesis, in male fetuses. At PN30, kidney volume and nephron number were lower in offspring exposed to prenatal alcohol. Urine flow and osmolality were normal in offspring exposed to alcohol however sodium excretion tended to be lower in females prenatally exposed to alcohol. Findings suggest exposure to moderate levels of alcohol during pregnancy results in impaired kidney development and leads to a permanent nephron deficit. Although the impact on adult kidney function was relatively minor, these data highlight that even at moderate levels, alcohol consumption during pregnancy can have deleterious long-term outcomes and should be avoided.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages14
JournalAnatomical Record
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 27 Jan 2020


  • apoptosis
  • kidney dysfunction
  • nephron endowment
  • prenatal alcohol exposure

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