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Jennifer L Juengel, George H Davis, and Kenneth P McNatty

Livestock populations have been subjected to strong selection pressure to improve reproductive success, and this has led to the identification of lines of animals with increased fecundity. These animals provide a rich biological resource for discovery of genes and regulatory mechanisms that underpin improved reproductive success. To date, three genes, all related to the transforming growth factor β pathway, have been identified as having mutations that lead to alterations in ovulation in sheep. In addition, several other sheep lines have been identified with putative mutations in single genes with major effects on ovulation rate. This review is focused on the identification of the mutations affecting ovulation rate and how these discoveries have provided new insights into control of ovarian function.

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Peter Smith, Jo-Ann L Stanton, Laurel Quirke, and Jennifer L Juengel

The aim of this study was to examine the relationships between gestational nutrition, fetal ovarian development and offspring fertility in female sheep and to highlight the potential mechanisms underlying these relationships. Adult sheep (n = 79) were fed either a maintenance or 0.6 of maintenance plane of nutrition for the first 55 days of gestation and thereafter fed ad libitum. Fetuses were collected for analysis at days 55 and 75 of gestation. Female offspring were monitored from birth until 19 months of age. Effects of restricted nutrition were observed on maternal plasma concentrations of progesterone, creatinine, albumin and Ca2+ at day 55 and creatinine at day 75. Concentrations of metabolic factors and steroid hormones in day 75 fetal plasma were not affected by the restricted maternal plane of nutrition. At day 55 of gestation, fetal ovarian germ cell development was not affected by maternal plane of nutrition. At day 75 of gestation ovaries from fetuses whose dams were exposed to restricted nutrition contained more germ cells but had lower germ cell proliferation rates than controls. For female offspring at 8 months of age, the dams gestational plane of nutrition did not affect the onset of puberty, ovulation rate (OR) and antral follicle counts (AFC). At 19 months of age, ewes from dams exposed to the restricted plane of gestational nutrition had higher OR, AFC and progesterone concentrations while concentrations of FSH were lower. In conclusion, while effects on fertility per se are yet to be determined, a reduced maternal plane of gestational nutrition can improve indicators of fertility in female offspring.

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Kenneth P McNatty, Derek A Heath, Zaramasina Clark, Karen Reader, Jennifer L Juengel, and Janet L Pitman

Ewes heterozygous for combinations of the Inverdale (FecXI; I+), Booroola (FecB; B+) and Woodlands (FecX2W; W+) mutations have ovulation rates higher than each mutation separately. The aims of the experiments described herein were to examine the ovarian phenotypes in I+B+ and I+B+W+ ewes and to compare these with the appropriate ++ (controls), I+ and BB animals available for this study. The mean ± s.e.m. ovulation rates in the ++ (n = 23), I+ (10), I+B+ (7), I+B+W+ (10) and BB (3) animals were 1.8 ± 0.1, 2.5 ± 0.2, 6.6 ± 1.0, 9.6 ± 0.9 and 9.7 ± 0.9 respectively. The maximum number of granulosa cells per follicle in the ++ and I+ genotypes was accumulated after exceeding 5 mm diameter, whereas in I+B+, I+B+W+ and BB animals, this was achieved when follicles reached >2–3 mm. The number of putative preovulatory follicles, as assessed from those with LH-responsive granulosa cells, 24 h after the induction of luteolysis, was higher (P < 0.01) in the I+B+ and I+B+W+ compared to the ++ and I+ genotypes. The median follicular diameters of these follicles in the ++, I+, I+B+, I+B+W+ and BB genotypes were 6, 5, 3, 3 and 3 mm respectively. The total number of granulosa cells in the putative preovulatory follicles when added together, and total mass of luteal tissue, did not differ between the genotypes. Thus, despite large ovulation rate differences between animals with one or more fecundity genes, the total cell compositions over all preovulatory follicles and corpora lutea, when added together, are similar to that from the one or two such follicles in the wild types.

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C Joy McIntosh, Steve Lawrence, Peter Smith, Jennifer L Juengel, and Kenneth P McNatty

The transforming growth factor β (TGFB) superfamily proteins bone morphogenetic protein 15 (BMP15) and growth differentiation factor 9 (GDF9), are essential for mammalian fertility. Recent in vitro evidence suggests that the proregions of mouse BMP15 and GDF9 interact with their mature proteins after secretion. In this study, we have actively immunized mice against these proregions to test the potential in vivo roles on fertility. Mice were immunized with either N- or C-terminus proregion peptides of BMP15 or GDF9, or a full-length GDF9 proregion protein, each conjugated to keyhole limpet hemocyanin (KLH). For each immunization group, ovaries were collected from ten mice for histology after immunization, while a further 20 mice were allowed to breed and litter sizes were counted. To link the ovulation and fertility data of these two experimental end points, mice were joined during the time period identified by histology as being the ovulatory period resulting in to the corpora lutea (CL) counted. Antibody titers in sera increased throughout the study period, with no cross-reactivity observed between BMP15 and GDF9 sera and antigens. Compared with KLH controls, mice immunized with the N-terminus BMP15 proregion peptide had ovaries with fewer CL (P<0.05) and produced smaller litters (P<0.05). In contrast, mice immunized with the full-length GDF9 proregion not only had more CL (P<0.01) but also had significantly smaller litter sizes (P<0.01). None of the treatments affected the number of antral follicles per ovary. These findings are consistent with the hypothesis that the proregions of BMP15 and GDF9, after secretion by the oocyte, have physiologically important roles in regulating ovulation rate and litter size in mice.

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Jennifer L Juengel, Derek A Heath, Laurel D Quirke, and Kenneth P McNatty

A first step to elucidating the roles that steroids may play in the processes of ovarian development and early follicular growth is to identify the cell types that are likely to be receptive to steroids. Thus, cell types expressing receptors for oestrogen (α and β form; ERα and ERβ respectively), androgen (AR) and progesterone (PR) were determined by in situ hybridisation and immunohistochemistry in ovine ovarian tissues collected during ovarian development and follicular formation (days 26–75 of fetal life) as well as during the early stages of follicular growth. Expression of ERβ was observed early during ovarian development and continued to be expressed throughout follicular formation and also during the early stages of follicular growth. ERβ was identified in germ cells as well as in the granulosa cells. At the large preantral stage of follicular growth, expression of ERα was also consistently observed in granulosa cells. AR was first consistently observed at day 55 of fetal life in stroma cells throughout the ovary. Within the follicle, expression was observed in granulosa and thecal cells from the type-2 to -3 stage of follicular growth. PR mRNA did not appear to be expressed during ovarian development (days 26–75 of gestation). However, PR (mRNA and protein) was observed in the theca of type-3 (small preantral) and larger follicles, with mRNA – but not protein – observed in granulosa cells of some type-4 and 5 follicles. Expression of ERβ, ERα and AR, as well as PR, was also observed in the surface epithelium and ovarian stroma of the fetal, neonatal and adult ovary. Thus, in sheep, steroid hormones have the potential to regulate the function of a number of different ovarian cell types during development, follicular formation and early follicular growth.

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Jennifer L Juengel, Lisa J Haydon, Brigitta Mester, Brian P Thomson, Michael Beaumont, and Douglas C Eckery

IGFs are known to be key regulators of ovarian follicular growth in eutherian mammals, but little is known regarding their role in marsupials. To better understand the potential role of IGFs in the regulation of follicular growth in marsupials, expression of mRNAs encoding IGF1, IGF2, IGF1R, IGF-binding protein 2 (IGFBP2), IGFBP4 and IGFBP5 was localized by in situ hybridization in developing ovarian follicles of the brushtail possum. In addition, the effects of IGF1 and IGF2 on granulosa cell function were tested in vitro. Both granulosa and theca cells synthesize IGF mRNAs, with the theca expressing IGF1 mRNA and granulosa cell expressing IGF2 mRNA. Oocytes and granulosa cells express IGF1R. Granulosa and theca cells expressed IGFBP mRNAs, although the pattern of expression differed between the BPs. IGFBP5 mRNA was differentially expressed as the follicles developed with granulosa cells of antral follicles no longer expressing IGFBP5 mRNA, suggesting an increased IGF bioavailability in the antral follicle. The IGFBP protease, PAPPA mRNA, was also expressed in granulosa cells of growing follicles. Both IGF1 and IGF2 stimulated thymidine incorporation but had no effect on progesterone production. Thus, IGF may be an important regulator of ovarian follicular development in marsupials as has been shown in eutherian mammals.

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Peter Smith, Jennifer Juengel, Paul Maclean, Christy Rand, and Jo-Ann L Stanton

A number of studies have demonstrated effects of gestational undernutrition on fetal ovarian development and postnatal female fertility. However, the mechanism underlying these effects remains elusive. Using a cohort of animals in which altered gestational nutrition affected indicators of postnatal fertility, this study applies RNAseq to fetal ovaries to identify affected genes and pathways that may underlie the relationship between gestational plane of nutrition and postnatal fertility. Pregnant ewes were exposed to either a maintenance diet or 0.6 of maintenance for the first 55 days of gestation followed by an ad libitum diet. Complementary DNA libraries were constructed from 5 to 6 fetal ovaries from each nutritional group at both days 55 and 75 of gestation and sequenced using Ion Proton. Of approximately 16,000 transcripts, 69 genes were differentially expressed at day 55 and 145 genes differentially expressed at day 75. At both gestational ages, genes expressed preferentially in germ cells were common among the differentially expressed genes. Enriched gene ontology terms included ion transport, nucleic acid binding, protease inhibitor activity and carrier proteins of the albumin family. Affected pathways identified by IPA analysis included LXR/RXR activation, FXR/RXR activation, pathways associated with nitric oxide production and citrullination (by NOS1), vitamin C transport and metabolism and REDOX reactions. The data offer some insights into potential mechanisms underlying the relationship between gestational plane of nutrition and postnatal fertility observed in these animals. In particular, the roles of nitric oxide and protease inhibitors in germ cell development are highlighted and warrant further study.

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Kenneth P McNatty, Derek A Heath, Norma L Hudson, Stan Lun, Jennifer L Juengel, and Lloyd G Moore

The aim of this study was to test the hypothesis that the higher ovulation-rate in ewes heterozygous for a mutation in bone morphogenetic protein 15 (BMP15; FecXI; otherwise known as Inverdale or I+ ewes) is due to granulosa cells developing an earlier responsiveness to LH, but not FSH. To address this hypothesis, granulosa cells were recovered from every individual nonatretic antral follicle (>2.5 mm diameter) from I+ and wild-type (++) ewes during anoestrus and the luteal and follicular phases and tested for their responsiveness to FSH and human chorionic gonadotrophin (hCG; a surrogate for LH). For the FSH receptor (FSHR) binding study, granulosa cells were harvested in three separate batches from all antral follicles (≥2.5 mm diameter) from I+ and ++ ewes. Using a highly-purified ovine FSH preparation, no evidence was found to suggest that I+ ewes have a higher ovulation-rate due to enhanced sensitivity of granulosa cells to FSH with respect to cAMP responsiveness or to their FSHR binding characteristics (equilibrium K d or B max). By contrast, a significantly higher proportion of follicles from I+ ewes contained granulosa cells responsive to hCG. The higher proportion was due to cells from more small follicles (i.e. >2.5–4.5 mm diameter) developing a response to hCG. It is concluded that the mutation in the BMP15 gene in I+ ewes leads to an earlier acquisition of LH responsiveness by granulosa cells in a greater proportion of follicles and this accounts for the small but significantly higher ovulation-rate in these animals.

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Jennifer L Juengel, Norma L Hudson, Martin Berg, Keith Hamel, Peter Smith, Stephen B Lawrence, Lynda Whiting, and Kenneth P McNatty

Growth differentiation factor 9 (GDF9) and bone morphogenetic protein 15 (BMP15) are essential for ovarian follicular growth in sheep, whereas only GDF9 is essential in mice suggesting that the roles of these oocyte-derived growth factors differ among species. At present, however, there is only limited information on the action of BMP15 and GDF9 in other species. Thus, the aim of this experiment was to determine the effect of neutralizing GDF9 and/or BMP15 in vivo on ovarian follicular development and ovulation rate in cattle through active immunization using the mature regions of the proteins or peptides from the N-terminal area of mature regions. Immunization with the BMP15 peptide, with or without GDF9 peptide, significantly altered (increased or decreased) ovulation rate. In some animals, there were no functional corpora lutea (CL), whereas in others up to four CL were observed. From morphometric examination of the ovaries, immunization with GDF9 and/or BMP15 reduced the level of ovarian follicular development as assessed by a reduced proportion of the ovarian section occupied by antral follicles. In addition, immunization against GDF9 and/or BMP15 peptides reduced follicular size to <25% of that in the controls. In conclusion, immunization against GDF9 and BMP15, alone or together, altered follicular development and ovulation rate in cattle. Thus, as has been observed in sheep, both GDF9 and BMP15 appear to be key regulators of normal follicular development and ovulation rate in cattle.

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Jennifer L Juengel, Michelle C French, Laurel D Quirke, Alexia Kauff, George W Smith, and Peter D Johnstone

We hypothesised that cocaine- and amphetamine-regulated transcript (CARTPT) would be differentially expressed in ewes with differing ovulation rates. Expression of mRNA for CARTPT, as well as LHCGR, FSHR, CYP19A1 and CYP17A1 was determined in antral follicles ≥1 mm in diameter collected during the follicular phase in ewes heterozygous for the Booroola and Inverdale genes (I+B+; average ovulation rate 4) and ++ contemporaries (++; average ovulation rate 1.8). In ++ ewes (n = 6), CARTPT was expressed in small follicles (1 to <3 mm diameter), where 18.8 ± 2.5% follicles expressed CARTPT. CART peptide was also detected in follicular fluid of some follicles of ++ ewes. In I+B+ ewes, 5/6 ewes did not have any follicles that expressed CARTPT, and no CART peptide was detected in any follicle examined. Expression pattern of CYP19A1 differed between I+B+ and ++ ewes with an increased percentage of small and medium follicles (3 to <4.5 mm diameter) but decreased percentage of large follicles (≥4.5 mm diameter) expressing CYP19A1 in the I+B+ ewes. Many of the large follicles from the I+B+ ewes appeared non-functional and expression of LHCGR, FSHR, CYP17A1 and CYP19A1 was less than that observed in ++ ewes. Expression of FSHR and CYP17A1 was not different between groups in small and medium follicles, but LHCGR expression was approximately double in I+B+ ewes compared to that in ++ ewes. Thus, ewes with high ovulation rates had a distinct pattern of expression of CARTPT mRNA and protein compared to ewes with normal ovulation rates, providing evidence for CART being important in the regulation of ovulation rate.