Oxygen levels in the placental microenvironment throughout gestation are not constant, with severe hypoxic conditions present during the first trimester. This hypoxic phase overlaps with the most critical stages of placental development, i.e., blastocyst implantation, cytotrophoblast invasion, and spiral artery remodeling initiation. Dysregulation of any of these steps in early gestation can result in pregnancy loss and/or adverse pregnancy outcomes. Hypoxia has been shown to regulate not only the self-renewal, proliferation, and differentiation of trophoblast stem cells and progenitor cells, but also the recruitment, phenotype, and function of maternal immune cells. In this review, we will summarize how oxygen levels in early placental development determine the survival, fate, and function of several important cell types, e.g., trophoblast stem cells, extravillous trophoblasts, syncytiotrophoblasts, uterine natural killer cells, Hofbauer cells, and decidual macrophages. We will also discuss the cellular mechanisms used to cope with low oxygen tensions, such as the induction of hypoxia-inducible factor (HIF) or mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) signals, regulation of the metabolic pathway, and adaptation to autophagy. Understanding the beneficial roles of hypoxia in early placental development will provide insights into the root cause(s) of some pregnancy disorders, such as spontaneous abortion, preeclampsia, and intrauterine growth restriction.
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