Preterm birth is an enormous public health problem, affecting over 12% of live births and costing over $26 billion in the United States alone. The causes are complex, but twin studies support the role of genetics in determining gestation length. Despite widespread use of the mouse in studies of the genetics of preterm birth, there have been few studies that actually address the precise natural gestation length of the mouse, and to what degree the timing of labor and birth is genetically determined.
To further develop the mouse as a genetic model of preterm birth, we developed a high-throughput monitoring system and measured the gestation length in 15 inbred strains. Our results show an unexpectedly wide variation in overall gestation length between strains that approaches two full days, while intra-strain variation is quite low. Although litter size shows a strong inverse correlation with gestation length, genetic difference alone accounts for a significant portion of the variation. In addition, ovarian transplant experiments support a primary role of maternal genetics in the determination of gestation length. Preliminary analysis of gestation length in the C57BL/6J-Chr#A/J/NaJ chromosome substitution strain (B.A CSS) panel suggests complex genetic control of gestation length.
Together, these data support the role of genetics in regulating gestation length and present the mouse as an important tool for the discovery of genes governing preterm birth.