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Based on gestational age at diagnosis and/or delivery, pre-eclampsia (PE) is commonly divided into early-onset (<34 weeks) and late-onset (≥34 weeks) forms. Recently, the distinction between ‘placental’ and ‘maternal’ causation has been proposed, with ‘placental’ cases being more frequently associated with early-onset and intrauterine growth restriction. To test whether molecular placental pathology varies according to clinical presentation, we investigated stress-signalling pathways, including unfolded protein response (UPR) pathways, MAPK stress pathways, heat-shock proteins and AMPKα in placentae delivered by caesarean section for clinical indications at different gestational ages. Controls included second-trimester, pre-term and normal-term placentae. BeWo cells were used to investigate how these pathways react to different severities of hypoxia–reoxygenation (H/R) and pro-inflammatory cytokines. Activation of placental UPR and stress-response pathways, including P-IRE1α, ATF6, XBP-1, GRP78 and GRP94, P-p38/p38 and HSP70, was higher in early-onset PE than in both late-onset PE and normotensive controls (NTCs), with a clear inflection around 34 weeks. Placentae from ≥ 34 weeks PE and NTC were indistinguishable. Levels of UPR signalling were similar between second-trimester and term controls, but were significantly higher in pre-term ‘controls’ delivered vaginally for chorioamnionitis and other conditions. Severe H/R (1/20% O2) induced equivalent activation of UPR pathways, including P-eIF2α, ATF6, P-IRE1α, GRP78 and GRP94, in BeWo cells. By contrast, the pro-inflammatory cytokines TNFα and IL-1β induced only mild activation of P-eIF2α and GRP78. AKT, a central regulator of cell proliferation, was reduced in the < 34 weeks PE placentae and severe H/R-treated cells, but not in other conditions. These findings provide the first molecular evidence that placental stress may contribute to the pathophysiology of early-onset pre-eclampsia, whereas that is unlikely to be the case in the late-onset form of the syndrome. © 2014 The Authors. The Journal of Pathology published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of Pathological Society of Great Britain and Ireland.