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Dawit Tesfaye, Samuel Gebremedhn, Dessie Salilew-Wondim, Tsige Hailay, Michael Hoelker, Christine Grosse-Brinkhaus, and Karl Schellander

The genetic regulation of female fertility (follicular development, oocyte maturation and early preimplantation embryo development) involves the spatio-temporal regulation of those genes that play key roles in various stages of the female reproductive axis. MicroRNAs (miRNAs), a class of small non-coding RNAs, are known to regulate the expression of a large proportion of such genes. In recent decades, multiple studies have aimed to determine the roles of these non-coding RNAs in mammalian follicular development, oocyte growth and embryo development. These studies have applied a variety of approaches, including conditional knockout of miRNA biogenesis genes, high-throughput sequencing technologies for pattern recognition in miRNA expression and loss- and gain-of-function of miRNAs in various animal models. In addition to the cellular miRNAs, a large variety of RNAs are found in circulation, being coupled with extracellular vesicles, proteins and lipids. Because of their potential as diagnostic markers for abnormal physiologies, there is increasing interest in the identification of extracellular miRNAs in various biological fluids and spent in vitro culture media. This review focuses on studies addressing the expression and potential role of cellular and extracellular miRNAs in mammalian follicular cell physiology and subsequent ovarian functionality and oocyte maturation.

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Ewa Borowczyk, Mary Lynn Johnson, Jerzy J Bilski, Magda A Bilska, Dale A Redmer, Lawrence P Reynolds, and Anna T Grazul-Bilska

To evaluate the role of gap junctions in the regulation of progesterone secretion, two experiments were conducted. In Experiment 1, luteal cells obtained on days 5, 10, and 15 were cultured overnight at densities of 50×103, 100×103, 300×103, and 600×103 cells/dish in medium containing: (1) no treatment (control), (2) LH, or (3) dbcAMP. In Experiment 2, luteal cells from days 5 and 10 of the estrous cycle were transfected with siRNA, which targeted the connexin (Cx) 43 gene. In Experiment 1, progesterone secretion, Cx43 mRNA expression, and the rates of gap junctional intercellular communication (GJIC), were affected by the day of the estrous cycle, cell density, and treatments (LH or dbcAMP). The changes in progesterone secretion were positively correlated with the changes in Cx43 mRNA expression and the rates of GJIC. Cx43 was detected on the luteal cell borders in every culture, and luteal cells expressed 3β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase. In Experiment 2, two Cx43 gene-targeted sequences decreased Cx43 mRNA expression and progesterone production by luteal cells. The changes in Cx43 mRNA expression were positively correlated with changes in progesterone concentration in media. Thus, our data demonstrate a relationship between gap junctions and progesterone secretion that was supported by (1) the positive correlations between progesterone secretion and Cx43 mRNA expression and GJIC of luteal cells and (2) the inhibition of Cx43 mRNA expression by siRNA that resulted in decreased production of progesterone by luteal cells. This suggests that gap junctions may be involved in the regulation of steroidogenesis in the ovine corpus luteum.

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Disha Pant, Lawrence P Reynolds, Justin S Luther, Pawel P Borowicz, Tande M Stenbak, Jerzy J Bilski, Robert M Weigl, Flavia Lopes, Kimberly Petry, Mary Lynn Johnson, Dale A Redmer, and Anna T Grazul-Bilska

To evaluate the effects of FSH, LH and/or cAMP on expression of connexin 43 (Cx43) in the ovine cumulus-oocyte complex (COC) and gap junctional intercellular communication (GJIC) of cumulus cells, two experiments were carried out. In experiment 1, Cx43 was immunodetected in the COC, before or after maturation, obtained from non-treated or FSH-treated ewes. The expression of Cx43 in the COC was greater (P < 0.01) on day 16 than on day 15 of the estrous cycle. In vivo FSH treatment decreased (P < 0.02) Cx43 expression on day 16 but not on day 15 of the estrous cycle. In experiment 2, intact COCs or isolated cumulus cells obtained from small and large follicles from FSH-treated ewes were cultured with or without FSH, LH or cAMP agonist and evaluated for GJIC by laser cytometry. For large follicles, the basal rate of GJIC was greater (P < 0.01) for cumulus cells in intact COCs than for isolated cumulus cells. FSH increased (P < 0.04) GJIC in cumulus cells in intact COCs and tended to increase (P < 0.1) GJIC in isolated cumulus cells from small follicles but decreased (P < 0.01) GJIC in cumulus cells in intact COCs from large follicles. LH also increased (P < 0.01) GJIC in isolated cumulus cells from small follicles but decreased GJIC in intact COCs (P < 0.01) and isolated cumulus cells (P < 0.02) from large follicles. cAMP increased (P < 0.01) the GJIC in both intact COCs and cumulus cells from small and large follicles. These results indicate that day of estrous cycle, stage of maturation and duration of FSH treatment affect expression of Cx43 in ovine COCs. In intact COCs, GJIC in cumulus cells was enhanced, probably due to the presence of the oocyte. In addition, the effects of FSH and LH, but not cAMP, on GJIC of cumulus cells depended on the stage of follicular development and on the presence of the oocyte.

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M. Brännström and S. Flaherty

Perfusion of intact ovaries in vitro has proved to be a suitable model for the study of ovarian events, such as ovulation and corpus luteum function, with advantages over cell culture systems of preserved three-dimensional structure with intact intercellular communication. This methodology has been described for several larger experimental animals. Development of genetically manipulated mouse strains and the larger availability of recombinant proteins and monoclonal antibodies in this species prompted the development of a mouse ovary perfusion system. In the present study, we describe the methodology for perfusion of mouse ovaries in vitro and characterize the model with respect to steroidogenesis, ovulatory efficiency and morphology. Swiss mice (30–45 g) were synchronized with a single injection of a GnRH agonist and laparotomy was peformed on the morning of pro-oestrus. The right ovary and its vasculature, after cannulation on the arterial side, were surgically isolated and transferred to a recirculating perfusion system, and were perfused for 20 h. The ultrastructure of the ovaries after 20 h of perfusion was examined by transmission electron microscopy, which showed well-preserved cellular organelles and nuclei and distinct tight junctions between endothelial cells. Unstimulated ovaries did not ovulate and secreted small quantities of progesterone. After addition of hCG (50 iu) or ovine LH (0.1 μg ml−1), ovulations were observed in all perfused ovaries (2.6 ± 0.5 and 2.0 ± 0.3 ovulations per treated ovary, respectively). There was a distinct rise in progesterone output after hormone addition. When a phosphodiesterase inhibitor, isobutylmethylxanthine (0.2 μmol l−1), was added in combination with LH, the ovulation rate (7.4 ± 1.2) was similar to that in vivo and progesterone secretion was further increased compared with other treatments. Since the mouse has become a very important experimental animal in medical research and we have the ability to genetically manipulate this species, this methodology for perfusing mouse ovaries in vitro may be a useful tool in future studies of ovarian physiology.

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Ricaurte Lopera-Vasquez, Meriem Hamdi, Veronica Maillo, Alfonso Gutierrez-Adan, Pablo Bermejo-Alvarez, Miguel Ángel Ramírez, María Yáñez-Mó, and Dimitrios Rizos

The aim of this study was to evaluate the effect of extracellular vesicles (EV) from oviductal fluid (OF), either from the ampulla or isthmus, on the development and quality of in vitro-cultured bovine embryos. Zygotes were cultured in synthetic oviduct fluid (SOF + 3 mg/mL BSA) without calf serum (C− group), in the presence of 3 × 105 EV/mL from ampullary or isthmic OF at either 1 × 104  g (10 K) or 1 × 105  g (100 K), and compared with SOF + 5% FCS (C+ group). OF-EV size and concentration were assessed by electron microscopy and nanotracking analysis system. Embryo development was recorded on Days 7–9, and blastocyst quality was assessed through cryotolerance and gene expression analysis. Lower blastocyst yield was observed on Day 7 in the C− and OF-EV groups (12.0–14.3%) compared with C+ (20.6%); however, these differences were compensated at Days 8 and 9 (Day 9: 28.5–30.8%). Importantly, the survival rate of blastocysts produced with isthmic 100 K OF-EV was higher than that of C+ and C− group at 72 h after vitrification and warming (80.1 vs 34.5 and 50.5% respectively, P < 0.05). In terms of gene expression, blastocysts produced in the presence of 100 K isthmic OF-EV upregulated the water channel AQP3 and DNMT3A and SNRPN transcripts compared with the C+, with the expression in C− being intermediate. The lipid receptor LDLR was downregulated in C+ compared with all other groups. In conclusion, the addition of oviductal fluid extracellular vesicles from isthmus, to in vitro culture of bovine embryos in the absence of serum improves the development and quality of the embryos produced.

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Jason C Parks, Blair R McCallie, Alyssa L Patton, Zain A Al-Safi, Alex J Polotsky, Darren K Griffin, William B Schoolcraft, and Mandy G Katz-Jaffe

Initial stages of implantation involve bi-directional molecular crosstalk between the blastocyst and endometrium. This study investigated an association between infertility etiologies, specifically advanced maternal age (AMA) and endometriosis, on the embryo-endometrial molecular dialogue prior to implantation. Co-culture experiments were performed with endometrial epithelial cells (EEC) and cryopreserved day 5 blastocysts (n = 41 ≥ Grade 3BB) donated from patients presenting with AMA or endometriosis, compared to fertile donor oocyte controls. Extracellular vesicles isolated from co-culture supernatant were analyzed for miRNA expression and revealed significant alterations correlating to AMA or endometriosis. Specifically, AMA resulted in 16 miRNAs with increased expression (P ≤ 0.05) and strong evidence for negative regulation toward 206 target genes. VEGFA, a known activator of cell adhesion, displayed decreased expression (P ≤ 0.05), validating negative regulation by 4 of these increased miRNAs: miR-126; 150; 29a; 29b (P ≤ 0.05). In endometriosis patients, a total of 10 significantly altered miRNAs displayed increased expression compared to controls (miR-7b; 9; 24; 34b; 106a; 191; 200b; 200c; 342-3p; 484) (P ≤ 0.05), targeting 1014 strong evidence-based genes. Three target genes of miR-106a (CDKN1A, E2F1 and RUNX1) were independently validated. Functional annotation analysis of miRNA-target genes revealed enriched pathways for both infertility etiologies, including disrupted cell cycle regulation and proliferation (P ≤ 0.05). These extracellular vesicle-bound secreted miRNAs are key transcriptional regulators in embryo-endometrial dialogue and may be prospective biomarkers of implantation success. One of the limitations of this study is that it was a stimulated, in vitro model and therefore may not accurately reflect the in-vivo environment.

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R. D. Powers and G. A. Paleos

Summary. Mouse oocytes were cultured in the presence of dibutyryl cyclic AMP (dbcAMP) and various agents that affect cytoplasmic calcium concentrations. Treatments that inhibited calcium uptake potentiated the inhibitory effect of dbcAMP and treatments which stimulated cellular calcium uptake overcame the effect of dbcAMP. Elevated extracellular calcium (>10 mm) significantly decreased the inhibitory effect of concentrations of dbcAMP up to 150 μ when compared to control levels of calcium (1·7 mm). In addition, the calcium ionophore A23187 (>1 μm) significantly overcame the effect of dbcAMP in media that contained 1·7 or 20 mm calcium. In the presence of 41 μm-dbcAMP the calcium antagonist verapamil increased (in a dose-dependent fashion) the percentage of oocytes blocked at the germinal vesicle stage, from 21% with 10 μm-verapamil to 99% with 200 μm. A similar dose-dependent, reversible potentiation of the effect of dbcAMP was found with tetracaine, which also lowers cytoplasmic calcium concentrations. These results suggest that a minimum level of cytoplasm calcium is required for the initiation of germinal vesicle breakdown and that the action of dbcAMP is mediated by its effect upon this calcium.

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K Iwahashi, N Kuji, T Fujiwara, H Tanaka, J Takahashi, N Inagaki, S Komatsu, A Yamamoto, Y Yoshimura, and K Akagawa

Syntaxin is an integral membrane protein that is involved in membrane fusion. The exocytosis of the contents of cortical granules, secretory vesicles located in the cortex of an egg, modify the extracellular environment to block additional spermatozoa from penetrating the newly fertilized egg. The aim of this study was to characterize syntaxin expression in mouse oocytes, and to determine the specific isoform that is expressed. Syntaxin was demonstrated in the mouse ovary and in mouse oocytes by both western blot and reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction analyses. Syntaxin 4 was specifically expressed in metaphase II oocytes. Syntaxin was also immunolocalized within metaphase II oocytes and one-cell embryos with pronuclei using laser scanning confocal microscopy. In metaphase II oocytes, syntaxin was located on the plasma membrane and in the cortex, where cortical granules are present, but was not seen at sites free of cortical granules. In one-cell embryos, no cytoplasmic region was free of syntaxin immunoreactivity. Immunoelectron microscopy detected syntaxin on both the plasma membrane and the vesicle membranes in mouse metaphase II oocytes. In conclusion the results indicate that syntaxin 4 co-localizes with cortical granules and participates in membrane fusion and exocytosis during the cortical reaction.

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Mian Liu, Xia Chen, Qing-Xian Chang, Rui Hua, Yan-Xing Wei, Li-Ping Huang, Yi-xin Liao, Xiao-Jing Yue, Hao-Yue Hu, Fei Sun, Si-Jia Jiang, Song Quan, and Yan-Hong Yu

Small extracellular vesicles (sEVs) are important mediators of cell-to-cell communication involved in the successful establishment of a pregnancy. Human decidual stromal cells play a key role in regulating trophoblast invasion. Nevertheless, the regulatory functions of decidual stromal cells-derived sEVs in human trophoblast cells are still unclear. In this study, primary human decidual stromal cells were isolated, and immortalized human endometrial stromal cell line (HESCs) were decidualized into human decidual stromal cells (HDSCs) using hormonal cocktail containing medroxy progesterone 17-acetate (MPA), estrogen and cAMP analog. HDSC-sEVs were isolated from both primary human decidual stromal cells and immortal HDSCs, respectively, and identified by transmission electron microscopy and western blotting. EV uptake assay indicated that HDSC-sEVs could be uptaken by trophoblast cells. HDSC-sEVs could increase the invasiveness and the expression level of N-cadherin of trophoblast cells with elevated phosphorylation of SMAD2 and SMAD3 in the cells. Silencing of N-cadherin could block cell invasion induced by HDSC-sEVs, while knockdown of SMAD2 and SMAD3 could inhibit the upregulation of N-cadherin in trophoblast cells. Taken together, our results suggested a regulatory effect of HDSC-sEVs in the invasion of trophoblast cells, and HDSC-sEVs may be important mediators of trophoblasts during embryo implantation and placentation.

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Natalie A Trigg, Andrew L Eamens, and Brett Nixon

It is now well established that mature spermatozoa harbour a rich and diverse profile of small non-protein-coding regulatory RNAs (sRNAs). There is also growing appreciation that this sRNA profile displays considerable plasticity, being altered in response to paternal exposure to a variety of environmental stressors. Coupled with evidence that upon delivery to the oocyte at the moment of fertilisation, sperm-borne sRNAs are able to influence both early embryonic development and the subsequent health of the offspring, there is now interest in both the timing and degree of change in the composition of the sRNA cargo of sperm. Models in which such epigenetic changes are linked to the spermatogenic cycle are seemingly incompatible with the lack of overt phenotypic changes in the spermatozoa of affected males. Rather, there is mounting consensus that such changes are imposed on sperm during their transit and storage within the epididymis, a protracted developmental window that takes place over several weeks. Notably, since spermatozoa are rendered transcriptionally and translationally silent during their development in the testes, it is most likely that the epididymis-documented alterations to the sperm sRNA profile are driven extrinsically, with a leading candidate being epididymosomes: small membrane enclosed extracellular vesicles that encapsulate a complex macromolecular cargo of proteins and RNAs, including the sRNAs. Here, we review the role of epididymosome–sperm communication in contributing to the establishment of the sperm sRNA profile during their epididymal transit.