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Monday, 4 June, 2001, 17:33 GMT 18:33 UK
Copper 'vital to development'
Copper is needed to ensure babies are born healthy
Embryos must have a supply of copper if they are to develop properly, scientists have discovered.

Three separate studies have established that the metal plays a crucial role in the proper formation of organs and tissues.

The work suggests that some miscarriages may be caused by genetic defects relating to copper.

Although the research was carried out in unborn mice, the scientists are confident the same holds good for humans.

However, pregnant women have been advised not to try to increase the amount of copper in their diets as too much can be toxic.

Copper is found in foods such as chocolate, spinach and lobster. It is also found in red wine.

Most people get plenty of copper from their daily diet, but some have genetic problems that prevent the body from properly using the nutrient.

Many uses

We didn't really know about its critical role in development

Dr Jonathan Gitlin
The body needs copper to process oxygen, generate energy in cells, allow the nervous system to transmit signals to the body, metabolise iron, grow blood vessels and develop skin, tendons and hair.

But it can be toxic at too high of a concentration.

One study by the University of Michigan Medical School focused on the importance of a gene called Ctr1 that helps copper get inside cells.

The researchers bred mice that had been genetically modified to lack copies of the gene, and found that all the embryos died before birth.

The embryos also were much smaller than usual and had major abnormalities in organ and cell development.

Researchers at the University of California at San Francisco who focused on the same gene found similar results.

Second gene

Jonathan Gitlin
Jonathan Gitlin said much work was still needed
In another study, researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis focused on the role of a copper-transporting gene called Atox1 that escorts the nutrient to its proper place within cells.

They used mice genetically altered to be Atox1 deficient, and found that their offspring were at high risk for birth defects.

Researcher Dr Jonathan Gitlin, from Washington University, said: "Copper is an essential nutrient. We've known that for a long time.

"But we didn't really know about its critical role in development."

"There could be some fascinating things going on there both nutritionally and genetically that we just don't understand."

The research is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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