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Putting pregnancy on hold: how does the wallaby do it?

About the pitch 

Imagine if you could put your pregnancy on hold for months at a time until the time was right to give birth. Sound like something out of a sci-fi novel? Amazingly over 130 species of mammals worldwide have this ability, a third of which are Australian mammals.


This includes the tammar wallaby, the world record holder for diapause as they can pause their pregnancy for up to 11 months at a time. This remarkable ability to pause pregnancy is known as “embryonic diapause” and occurs before the embryo attaches to the uterus to form a placenta.


Although we know the maintenance of the paused embryo and its reactivation relies entirely on communication between the uterus and the embryo, the precise molecular controls are unknown.


Recent research suggests that these molecular controls are conserved across all mammals, even in species which don’t pause their pregnancy, including humans.


Therefore, if we could “crack the code” on how diapause is controlled there would be significant implications for a number of fields - including IVF and stem cell biology. For example, IVF embryos could be stored without the need for ultra-cold temperatures thus making the process easier, cheaper and better overall for embryo health.


Meet the Speaker

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Jane Fenelon

Dr Jane Fenelon is a Research Fellow investigating the reproduction and development of marsupials and monotremes at the University of Melbourne. She was awarded her PhD from the University of Melbourne in 2011 and was a postdoctoral fellow in Canada at the University of Montreal from 2012-2015 and the University of Ottawa from 2015-2017, returning to the University of Melbourne in 2018.


Her research has two main focuses. The first is on embryonic diapause, the ability of some mammals to temporarily pause their pregnancy. Her research focusses on understanding how the uterus and the embryo communicate with each other to control diapause and the implications of this for pregnancy in all mammals, including humans.


Her second focus is looking into the reproduction and development of the short-beaked echidna. The echidna is one of only 5 egg-laying mammals worldwide and this is the first in-depth study into its reproduction.

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