The postnatal window is critical for the development of sex-specific metabolic and gut microbiota outcomes in offspring.
The Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (DOHaD) concept has been proposed to explain the influence of environmental conditions during critical developmental stages on the risk of diseases in adulthood. The aim of this study was to compare the impact of the prenatal vs. postnatal environment on the gut microbiota in dams during the preconception, gestation and lactation periods and their consequences on metabolic outcomes in offspring. Here we used the cross-fostering technique, e.g. the exchange of pups following birth to a foster dam, to decipher the metabolic effects of the intrauterine versus postnatal environmental exposures to a polyphenol-rich cranberry extract (CE). CE administration to high-fat high-sucrose (HFHS)-fed dams improved glucose homeostasis and reduced liver steatosis in association with a shift in the maternal gut microbiota composition. Unexpectedly, we observed that the postnatal environment contributed to metabolic outcomes in female offspring, as revealed by adverse effects on adiposity and glucose metabolism, while no effect was observed in male offspring. In addition to the strong sexual dimorphism, we found a significant influence of the nursing mother on the community structure of the gut microbiota based on alpha-diversity and beta-diversity indices in offspring. Gut microbiota transplantation (GMT) experiments partly reproduced the observed phenotype in female offspring. Our data support the concept that the postnatal environment represents a critical window to influence future sex-dependent metabolic outcomes in offspring that are causally but partly linked with gut microbiome alterations.