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Derek A Heath, Janet L Pitman and Kenneth P McNatty

Bone morphogenetic factor 15 (BMP15) and growth differentiation factor 9 (GDF9) are oocyte-secreted factors with demonstrable effects on ovarian follicular development and ovulation rate. However, the molecular forms of BMP15 and GDF9 produced by oocytes remain unclear. The aims herein, using Western blotting (WB) procedures with specific monoclonal antibodies (mabs), were to identify the molecular forms of BMP15 and GDF9 synthesised and secreted by isolated ovine (o) and bovine (b) oocytes in vitro. The mabs were known to recognise the biological forms of BMP15 or GDF9 since they had previously been shown to inhibit their bioactivities in vitro and in vivo. Using recombinant variants of oBMP15 and oGDF9, including a cysteine mutant form of oBMP15 (S356C) and a human (h) BMP15:GDF9 heterodimer (cumulin), it was established that the mabs were able to identify monomeric, dimeric, promature and higher-molecular-weight forms of BMP15 and GDF9 and cumulin (GDF9 mab only). After using non-reducing, reducing and reducing + cross-linking conditions, the major oocyte-secreted forms of o and b BMP15 and GDF9 were the cleaved and uncleaved monomeric forms of the promature proteins. There was no evidence for dimeric or heterodimeric forms of either mature BMP15 or GDF9. From in silico modelling studies using transforming growth factor beta (TGFB), activin or BMP crystal templates, and both present and previously published data, a model is proposed to illustrate how the monomeric forms of BMP15 and GDF9 may interact with their type II and type I cell-surface receptors to initiate the synergistic actions of these growth factors.

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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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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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Kenneth P McNatty, Derek A Heath, Norma L Hudson, Karen L Reader, Laurel Quirke, Stan Lun and Jenny L Juengel

In mammals with a low ovulation rate phenotype, ovarian follicular development is thought to be hierarchical with few, if any, antral follicles at similar stages of development. The hypothesis being tested herein was that if most follicles are in a functionally different state, then the application of exogenous hormones to increase ovulation rate will not overcome the hierarchical nature of follicular development. Using sheep as the experimental model, the functional states of all non-atretic antral follicles ≥2 mm diameter were assessed in individual ewes (N=10/group) during anoestrus with or without pregnant mare's serum gonadotrophin (PMSG) treatment, or after a standard superovulation regimen, or during the follicular phase of the oestrous cycle. The functional states of these follicles were assessed by measuring the FSH- or human chorionic gonadotrophin (hCG)-induced cAMP responses of granulosa cells in vitro. There were significant overall effects across the treatment groups on the responses of granulosa cells to either FSH or LH (both P<0.001). It was concluded that for anoestrous ewes with or without PMSG treatment, and ewes during the follicular phase, granulosa cell populations of many follicles (≥2 mm diameter) did not share a similar cAMP response to FSH (∼50% of follicles) or hCG (>90% of follicles) either on a per cell or total cell basis. After superovulation, ≤30 and 10% respectively of the granulosa cell populations shared similar responses to FSH and LH with regard to follicular diameter and cAMP output. Thus, exogenous hormone treatments used routinely for increasing oocyte yield do not effectively override the hierarchical pattern of ovarian follicular development during the follicular phase.

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Jennifer L Juengel, Laurel D Quirke, Stan Lun, Derek A Heath, Peter D Johnstone and Kenneth P McNatty

Sheep with a heterozygous inactivating mutation in the bone morphogenetic protein 15 (BMP15) gene experience an increased ovulation rate during either a natural oestrous cycle or a cycle in which exogenous FSH and eCG (gonadotrophins) are given to induce multiple ovulations. The primary aim of these studies was to determine whether ewes immunised against BMP15 would also show an improved superovulation rate following exogenous gonadotrophin treatment. A secondary aim was to determine the effects of BMP15 immunisation on ovarian follicular characteristics. In most ewes (i.e. >75%) immunised with a BMP15-keyhole limpet haemocyanin peptide in an oil-based adjuvant in order to completely neutralise BMP15 bioactivity, there was no superovulation response to exogenous gonadotrophins. In ewes treated with exogenous gonadotrophins following a BMP15-BSA peptide immunisation in a water-based adjuvant to partially neutralise BMP15 bioactivity, the ovulation rate response was similar to the control superovulation treatment groups. Characterisation of follicular function revealed that the water-based BMP15-immunised animals had fewer non-atretic follicles 2.5–3.5 or >4.5 mm in diameter compared with controls. Basal concentrations of cAMP were higher in granulosa cells from animals immunised against BMP15 than control animals. There were no significant differences in the concentrations of cAMP between granulosa cells from BMP15- and control-immunised animals when given FSH or hCG, although there were differences in the proportions of follicles in different size classes that responded to FSH or hCG. Thus, immunisation against BMP15 may have been causing premature luteinisation and thereby limiting the numbers of follicles recruited for ovulation following treatment with exogenous gonadotrophins.

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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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Karen L Reader, Derek A Heath, Stan Lun, C Joy McIntosh, Andrea H Western, Roger P Littlejohn, Kenneth P McNatty and Jennifer L Juengel

Growth differentiation factor 9 (GDF9) and bone morphogenetic protein 15 (BMP15) are oocyte-secreted factors known to be involved in regulating the proliferation and differentiation of granulosa cells during follicular growth. The aims of this study were to determine the signalling pathways used by recombinant forms of murine and ovine GDF9 and BMP15 in combination (GDF9+BMP15) and the molecular complexes formed by combinations of these factors. Differences in the molecular forms of combinations of murine and ovine GDF9+BMP15 were observed by western blot analysis. Ovine GDF9+BMP15-stimulated 3H-thymidine uptake was completely blocked by SMAD2/3 and nuclear factor-κB pathway inhibitors and partially blocked by a p38-mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) inhibitor. Thymidine uptake by murine GDF9+BMP15 was reduced by the SMAD2/3 and extracellular signal-regulated kinase-MAPK pathway inhibitors and increased after addition of a c-Jun N-terminal kinase inhibitor. Stimulation of 3H-thymidine uptake by GDF9+BMP15 from either species was not affected by the SMAD1/5/8 pathway inhibitor. In conclusion, both murine and ovine GDF9+BMP15-stimulated thymidine incorporation in rat granulosa cells was dependent on the SMAD2/3 signalling pathway but not the SMAD1/5/8 pathway. Divergence in the non-SMAD signalling pathways used by murine and ovine GDF9+BMP15 was also evident and may be due to the differences observed in the molecular complexes formed by these factors. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that the disparate cooperative functions of GDF9 and BMP15 in different species are mediated by divergent non-SMAD signalling pathways.

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Janet L Crawford, Derek A Heath, Karen L Reader, Laurel D Quirke, Norma L Hudson, Jennifer L Juengel and Kenneth P McNatty

The aim of this study was to test the hypothesis that the high ovulation rate in ewes (BB) homozygous for a mutation in the bone morphogenetic protein receptor type 1B (BMPR1B) gene is linked to lower BMP15 and/or GDF9 mRNA in oocytes compared with those in wild-type (++) ewes. Cumulus cell–oocyte complexes (COC) and granulosa cells (GC) were recovered from ≥1 mm diameter follicles of BB and ++ ewes during a prostaglandin-induced follicular phase. Expression levels of GDF9 and BMP15 were measured by multiplex qPCR from individual COC. The gonadotropin-induced cAMP responses of the GC from each non-atretic follicle were measured following treatment with FSH or human chorionic gonadotropin. In a separate validation experiment, GDF9 and BMP15 expression was present only in oocytes and not in cumulus cells. There was no effect of follicular diameter on oocyte-derived GDF9 or BMP15 mRNA levels. The mean expression levels of BMP15, but not GDF9, were significantly lower in all non-atretic follicles, including the subsets containing either FSH- or LH-responsive GC in BB, compared with ++, ewes. No genotype effects were noted for FSH-induced cAMP production by GC either with respect to dose of, or number of follicles responding to, FSH. However, ovaries from BB ewes contained significantly more follicles responsive to LH, with respect to cAMP production in GC. We propose that these findings are consistent with the hypothesis that the higher ovulation rate in BB sheep is due, at least in part, to lower oocyte-derived BMP15 mRNA levels together with the earlier onset of LH-responsiveness in GC.

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Zaramasina L Clark, Derek A Heath, Anne R O’Connell, Jennifer L Juengel, Kenneth P McNatty and Janet L Pitman

Ewes with single copy mutations in GDF9, BMP15 or BMPR1B have smaller preovulatory follicles containing fewer granulosa cells (GC), while developmental competency of the oocyte appears to be maintained. We hypothesised that similarities and/or differences in follicular maturation events between WT (++) ewes and mutant ewes with single copy mutations in BMP15 and BMPR1B (I+B+) are key to the attainment of oocyte developmental competency and for increasing ovulation rate (OR) without compromising oocyte quality. Developmental competency of oocytes from I+B+ animals was confirmed following embryo transfer to recipient ewes. The microenvironment of both growing and presumptive preovulatory (PPOV) follicles from ++ and I+B+ ewes was investigated. When grouped according to gonadotropin-responsiveness, PPOV follicles from I+B+ ewes had smaller mean diameters with fewer GC than equivalent follicles in ++ ewes (OR = 4.4 ± 0.7 and 1.7 ± 0.2, respectively; P < 0.001). Functional differences between these genotypes included differential gonadotropin-responsiveness of GC, follicular fluid composition and expression levels of cumulus cell-derived VCAN, PGR, EREG and BMPR2 genes. A unique microenvironment was characterised in I+B+ follicles as they underwent maturation. Our evidence suggests that GC were less metabolically active, resulting in increased follicular fluid concentrations of amino acids and metabolic substrates, potentially protecting the oocyte from ROS. Normal expression levels of key genes linked to oocyte quality and embryo survival in I+B+ follicles support the successful lambing percentage of transferred I+B+ oocytes. In conclusion, these I+B+ oocytes develop normally, despite radical changes in follicular size and GC number induced by these combined heterozygous mutations.