The aim of this study was to investigate the properties and to functionally characterize the cervical mucus that modulates sperm transport through the cervix by using ewe breeds with a divergent pregnancy rate (Belclare and Suffolk; high and low, respectively) following cervical insemination using frozen-thawed semen. Sperm number, as well as sialic acid and fucose content in both the channels and in the lumen of different regions of the cervix were quantified in inseminated Belclare and Suffolk ewes. Expression of glycosyltransferase and MUC genes, glycosidase activity and sialic acid speciation in follicular phase cervical tissue and mucus were assessed. More spermatozoa were found in the cervical channels in the region closest to the cervical os in Belclare than Suffolk ewes (P < 0.05) and Suffolk ewes had a higher sialic acid content in the cervical channels than Belclare ewes (P < 0.05) in all regions of cervix. Suffolk ewes had significantly higher expression of FUT1, ST6GAL1 and MUC5AC than Belclare ewes. There was no difference between the breeds in glycosidase activity (P > 0.05). Levels of Neu5Ac were higher in Belclare than Suffolk ewes (P < 0.05) and levels of Neu5Gc was higher in Suffolk than Belclare ewes (P < 0.05). Competitive sperm penetration assays demonstrated that frozen-thawed sperm progression increased when cervical mucus was incubated with sialyllactose prior to a sperm penetration test (P < 0.05). These results suggest that the difference between Belclare and Suffolk ewes in sperm transport with frozen-thawed semen is due to the higher concentration of sialic acid within channels, which binds to spermatozoa and reduces their ability to traverse the cervix.
Supplementary Table 1
Supplementary Figure 1: Glycosidase activity (log scale) in cervical mucus (mean ± s.e.m). Ewes were slaughtered at 42 (Belclare n=7; Suffolk n=6) or 57 (Belclare n=8; Suffolk n=4) h post pessary removal and swabs were taken from the mid-cervical region for glycosidase analysis.