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Jane C Fenelon, Geoff Shaw, Chris O'Neill, Stephen Frankenberg and Marilyn B Renfree

The control of reactivation from embryonic diapause in the tammar wallaby (Macropus eugenii) involves sequential activation of the corpus luteum, secretion of progesterone that stimulates endometrial secretion and subsequent changes in the uterine environment that activate the embryo. However, the precise signals between the endometrium and the blastocyst are currently unknown. In eutherians, both the phospholipid Paf and its receptor, platelet-activating factor receptor (PTAFR), are present in the embryo and the endometrium. In the tammar, endometrial Paf release in vitro increases around the time of the early progesterone pulse that occurs around the time of reactivation, but whether Paf can reactivate the blastocyst is unknown. We cloned and characterised the expression of PTAFR in the tammar embryo and endometrium at entry into embryonic diapause, during its maintenance and after reactivation. Tammar PTAFR sequence and protein were highly conserved with mammalian orthologues. In the endometrium, PTAFR was expressed at a constant level in the glandular epithelium across all stages and in the luminal epithelium during both diapause and reactivation. Thus, the presence of the receptor appears not to be a limiting factor for Paf actions in the endometrium. However, the low levels of PTAFR in the embryo during diapause, together with its up-regulation and subsequent internalisation at reactivation, supports earlier results suggesting that endometrial Paf could be involved in reactivation of the tammar blastocyst from embryonic diapause.

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Florine C Martin, Ching-Seng Ang, David K Gardner, Marilyn B Renfree and Geoff Shaw

The marsupial tammar wallaby has the longest period of embryonic diapause of any mammal, up to 11 months, during which there is no cell division or blastocyst growth. Since the blastocyst in diapause is surrounded by acellular coats, the signals that maintain or terminate diapause involve factors that reside in uterine secretions. The nature of such factors remains to be resolved. In this study, uterine flushings (UFs) were used to assess changes in uterine secretions of tammars using liquid chromatography–mass spectrometry (LC–MS/MS) during diapause (day 0 and 3) and reactivation days (d) 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 11 and 24 after removal of pouch young (RPY), which initiates embryonic development. This study supports earlier suggestions that the presence of specific factors stimulate reactivation, early embryonic growth and cell proliferation. A mitogen, hepatoma-derived growth factor and soluble epidermal growth factor receptors were observed from d3 until at least d11 RPY when these secreted proteins constituted 21% of the UF proteome. Binding of these factors to specific cellular receptors or growth factors may directly stimulate DNA synthesis and division in endometrial gland cells. Proteins involved in the p53/CDKN1A (p21) cell cycle inhibition pathway were also observed in the diapause samples. Progesterone and most of the oestrogen-regulated proteins were present in the UF after d3, which is concomitant with the start of blastocyst mitoses at d4. We propose that once the p21 inhibition of the cell cycle is lost, growth factors including HDGF and EGFR are responsible for reactivation of the diapausing blastocyst via the uterine secretions.

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Hongshi Yu, Andrew J Pask, Yanqiu Hu, Geoff Shaw and Marilyn B Renfree

The X-linked aristaless gene, ARX, is essential for the development of the gonads, forebrain, olfactory bulb, pancreas, and skeletal muscle in mice and humans. Mutations cause neurological diseases, often accompanied by ambiguous genitalia. There are a disproportionately high number of testis and brain genes on the human and mouse X chromosomes. It is still unknown whether the X chromosome accrued these genes during its evolution or whether genes that find themselves on the X chromosome evolve such roles. ARX was originally autosomal in mammals and remains so in marsupials, whereas in eutherian mammals it translocated to the X chromosome. In this study, we examined autosomal ARX in tammars and compared it with the X-linked Arx in mice. We detected ARX mRNA in the neural cells of the forebrain, midbrain and hindbrain, and olfactory bulbs in developing tammars, consistent with the expression in mice. ARX was detected by RT-PCR and mRNA in situ hybridization in the developing tammar wallaby gonads of both sexes, suggestive of a role in sexual development as in mice. We also detected ARX/Arx mRNA in the adult testis in both tammars and mice, suggesting a potential novel role for ARX/Arx in spermiogenesis. ARX transcripts were predominantly observed in round spermatids. Arx mRNA localization distributions in the mouse adult testis suggest that it escaped meiotic sex chromosome inactivation during spermatogenesis. Our findings suggest that ARX in the therian mammal ancestor already played a role in male reproduction before it was recruited to the X chromosome in eutherians.

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Nanette Y Schneider, Terrence P Fletcher, Geoff Shaw and Marilyn B Renfree

In kangaroos and wallabies at birth the highly altricial newborn young climbs unassisted from the urogenital opening to the teat. Negative geotropism is important for the initial climb to the pouch opening, but nothing is known of the signals that then direct the neonate downwards to the teat. Here we show that the newborn tammar wallaby (Macropus eugenii) has the olfactory apparatus to detect smell. Both the main olfactory system and vomeronasal organ (VNO) are developed at the time of birth. Receptor cells of the main olfactory epithelium immunopositive for G-protein project to the three layered main olfactory bulb (MOB). The receptor epithelium of the VNO contains G-protein immunopositive cells and has olfactory knob-like structures. The VNO is connected to an area between the two MOBs. Next, using a functional test, we show that neonates can respond to odours from their mother's pouch. When neonatal young are presented with a choice of a pouch-odour-soaked swab or a saline swab, they choose the swab with their mother's pouch secretions significantly more often (P<0.05) than the saline swab. We conclude that both olfactory systems are capable of receiving odour signals at birth, a function that must be a critical adaptation for the survival of an altricial marsupial neonate such as the tammar for its journey to the pouch.

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Marilyn B Renfree, Eleanor I Ager, Geoff Shaw and Andrew J Pask

Genomic imprinting is a widespread epigenetic phenomenon in eutherian mammals, which regulates many aspects of growth and development. Parental conflict over the degree of maternal nutrient transfer is the favoured hypothesis for the evolution of imprinting. Marsupials, like eutherian mammals, are viviparous but deliver an altricial young after a short gestation supported by a fully functional placenta, so can shed light on the evolution and time of acquisition of genomic imprinting. All orthologues of eutherian imprinted genes examined have a conserved expression in the marsupial placenta regardless of their imprint status. Differentially methylated regions (DMRs) are the most common mechanism controlling genomic imprinting in eutherian mammals, but none were found in the marsupial imprinted orthologues of IGF2 receptor (IGF2R), INS or mesoderm-specific transcript (MEST). Instead, histone modification appears to be the mechanism used to silence these genes. At least three genes in marsupials have DMRs: H19, IGF2 and PEG10. PEG10 is particularly interesting as it is derived from a retrotransposon, providing the first direct evidence that retrotransposon insertion can drive the evolution of an imprinted region and of a DMR in mammals. The insertion occurred after the prototherian–therian mammal divergence, suggesting that there may have been strong selection for the retention of imprinted regions that arose during the evolution of placentation. There is currently no evidence for genomic imprinting in the egg-laying monotreme mammals. However, since these mammals do have a short-lived placenta, imprinting appears to be correlated with viviparity but not placentation.

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Yanqiu Hu, Hongshi Yu, Andrew J Pask, Deborah A O'Brien, Geoff Shaw and Marilyn B Renfree

A-kinase anchor protein 4 (AKAP4) is an X-linked member of the AKAP family of scaffold proteins that anchor cAMP-dependent protein kinases and play an essential role in fibrous sheath assembly during spermatogenesis and flagellar function in spermatozoa. Marsupial spermatozoa differ in structural organization from those of eutherian mammals but data on the molecular control of their structure and function are limited. We therefore cloned and characterized the AKAP4 gene in a marsupial, the tammar wallaby (Macropus eugenii). The gene structure, sequence, and predicted protein of AKAP4 were highly conserved with that of eutherian orthologues and it mapped to the marsupial X-chromosome. There was no AKAP4 expression detected in the developing young. In the adult, AKAP4 expression was limited to the testis with a major transcript of 2.9 kb. AKAP4 mRNA was expressed in the cytoplasm of round and elongated spermatids while its protein was found on the principal piece of the flagellum in the sperm tail. This is consistent with its expression in other mammals. Thus, AKAP4 appears to have a conserved role in spermatogenesis for at least the last 166 million years of mammalian evolution.

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Yu Chen, Hongshi Yu, Andrew J Pask, Asao Fujiyama, Yutaka Suzuki, Sumio Sugano, Geoff Shaw and Marilyn B Renfree

The development of the mammalian phallus involves hormone-dependent mesenchymal–epithelial signalling mechanisms that contribute to urethral closure and regulation of phallus elongation and growth. In marsupials, most differentiation and growth of the phallus occurs post-natally, making them amenable to direct hormone treatment. Expression of IGFs, FGFs, EFNB2, MAFB, DLX5 and AP-1 mRNAs in the phallus at day 50 post-partum (pp) were altered after treatment of tammar wallaby young from day 20 to 40 pp with androgen, oestrogen or after castration at day 25 pp. However, the most interesting changes occurred in the IGF pathway genes. Androgen treatment upregulated IGF1 in female phalluses and oestrogen treatment upregulated IGF1 in male phalluses, but it was downregulated by castration. IGFBP3 was higher in female phalluses and downregulated by androgen. IGF1 expression was higher in all untreated male than in female phalluses from day 50 to 150 pp, but IGFBP3 had the reverse pattern. At day 90 pp, when urethral closure in males is progressing and male phallus growth is accelerating. IGF1 and PCNA protein were only detected in the male urorectal septum, suggesting for the first time that closure and elongation may involve IGF1 activation of cell proliferation specifically in male phalluses. These effects of sex steroids on gene expression and on the IGF1 signalling pathway in particular, suggest that the developing phallus may be especially susceptible to perturbation by exogenous hormones.

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Emily F Hynes, Carl D Rudd, Peter D Temple-Smith, George Sofronidis, Damien Paris, Geoff Shaw and Marilyn B Renfree

The tammar wallaby (Macropus eugenii) is a small, promiscuous, macropodid marsupial. Females usually produce a single young each year and there is a clear dominance hierarchy between adult males. The dominant male usually mates first and then guards the female to prevent access to her by other males. In this study, agonistic encounters and mating behaviour were observed to determine male dominance hierarchies in six groups of captive tammars consisting of a total of 23 males and 50 females. Mating behaviour was observed immediately post-partum when females were in oestrus and was correlated with plasma testosterone concentrations. Male mating sequences were recorded, and the paternity of offspring was determined by using seven macropodid marsupial microsatellites. Rates of sexual checking and aggression by males housed with females in oestrus in the non-breeding season were lower than in the breeding season. These males also had lower concentrations of testosterone, but were still able to sire young. High testosterone concentrations neither ensured dominance nor appeared to control directly the level of sexual activity. Females usually mated with more than one male. The dominant male most often secured the initial copulation (60%), but the first-mating male did not always secure parentage, with second and third matings resulting in as many young as first matings. Using these data, we were unable to discount first sire, last sire or equal chance models of paternity in this species. Half the young (50%) were sired by the dominant α male, but of the remaining progeny, the β male sired more (35%) than γ and δ males (15%). Dominance therefore is only a moderately effective predictor of paternity in the tammar. Although the dominant males gained most first matings and individually sired half of the offspring, the subdominant males still contributed significantly to the population, at least in captivity.