The objective of this study was to examine the effect of nutrition during the first 18 weeks of life on the physiological and transcriptional functionality of the hypothalamic (arcuate nucleus region), anterior pituitary and testes in Holstein–Friesian bull calves. Holstein–Friesian bull calves with a mean (±s.d.) age and bodyweight of 19 (±8.2) days and 47.5 (±5.3) kg, respectively, were assigned to either a HIGH (n = 10) or LOW (n = 10) plane of nutrition, to achieve an overall target growth rate of 1.2 or 0.5 kg/day, respectively. At 126 ± 1.1 days of age, all calves were euthanised. Animal performance (weekly) and systemic concentrations of metabolic (monthly) and reproductive hormones (fortnightly) were assessed. Testicular histology, targeted gene and protein expression of the arcuate nucleus region, anterior pituitary and testes were also assessed using qPCR and immunohistochemistry, respectively. The expression of candidate genes in testicular tissue from post pubertal 19-month-old Holstein–Friesian bulls (n = 10) was compared to that of the 18-week-old calves. Metabolite and metabolic hormone profiles generally reflected the improved metabolic status of the calves on the HIGH (P < 0.001). Calves offered a HIGH plane of nutrition were heavier at slaughter (P < 0.001), had larger testes (P < 0.001), larger seminiferous tubule diameter (P < 0.001), more mature spermatogenic cells (P < 0.001) and more Sertoli cells (P < 0.05) in accordance with both morphological and transcriptional data. Overall, testicular gene expression profiles suggested a more mature stage of development in HIGH compared with LOW and were more closely aligned to that of mature bulls. Ghrelin receptor was the only differentially expressed gene between LOW and HIGH calves in either the anterior pituitary (P < 0.05) or arcuate nucleus region of the hypothalamus (P < 0.10) and was upregulated in LOW for both tissues. This study indicates that an enhanced plane of nutrition during early calfhood favourably alters the biochemical regulation of the hypothalamus–anterior pituitary–testicular axis, advancing testicular development and hastening spermatogenesis.
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