You are here

| Embryo Development

New Single-cell Study Provides a Detailed Description of the Early Maternal-Fetal Interface

Review of “Single-cell reconstruction of the early maternal-fetal interface in humans” from Nature by Stuart P. Atkinson 

In preparation for pregnancy, the endometrium transforms into the decidua, thereby providing the implantation site for the fetus and forming the maternal part of the placenta [1]. A deeper appreciation of the interactions occurring between the multitude of cells that support early pregnancy has the potential to further our appreciation of placental biology, reproductive success [2], and pregnancy disorders such as pre-eclampsia and stillbirth.

Now, researchers from the laboratory of Sarah A. Teichmann (Wellcome Sanger Institute, Cambridge, UK) report the integration of single-cell transcriptomics, computational framework predictions of cell-type-specific ligand-receptor complexes, and spatial in situ analysis to construct a detailed molecular and cellular map of the human decidual-placental interface between 6–14 weeks of gestation [3].

Vento-Tormo et al. began their fascinating study by profiling single cells from first-trimester placentas with matched maternal blood and decidual cells via the application of droplet-based encapsulation [4] and plate-based Smart-seq2 [5] methods and employing a computational approach named CellPhoneDB as a tool to predict how these cells would communicate and interact. 

In summary, the authors discovered subsets of perivascular and stromal cells located in distinct decidual layers and three major subsets of decidual natural killer cells displaying distinctive immunomodulatory and chemokine profiles, while also highlighting the presence of complex regulatory interactions that prevent harmful innate or adaptive immune responses that may affect the placenta or uterus.

The authors anticipate that this first description of a cell “atlas” of the early maternal-fetal interface will provide a means to better our understanding of both normal pregnancies and patients suffering from pregnancy disorders.

For more on the complex cell interactions that take place during early pregnancies, and all the newly developed tools and approaches to understanding them, stay tuned to the Stem Cells Portal


  1. Ramathal CY, Bagchi IC, Taylor RN, et al., Endometrial Decidualization: Of Mice and Men. Semin Reprod Med 2010;28:017-026.
  2. Smith GS, First-trimester determination of complications of late pregnancy. JAMA 2010;303:561-562.
  3. Vento-Tormo R, Efremova M, Botting RA, et al., Single-cell reconstruction of the early maternal–fetal interface in humans. Nature 2018;563:347-353.
  4. Zheng GXY, Terry JM, Belgrader P, et al., Massively parallel digital transcriptional profiling of single cells. Nature Communications 2017;8:14049.
  5. Picelli S, Faridani OR, Björklund ÅK, et al., Full-length RNA-seq from single cells using Smart-seq2. Nature Protocols 2014;9:171.