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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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Jennifer L Juengel, Karen L Reader, Adrian H Bibby, Stan Lun, Ian Ross, Lisa J Haydon and Kenneth P McNatty

The intraovarian roles of BMP family members such as BMP2, 4, 6 and 7 are not well understood, particularly in species with low ovulation rates such as sheep. Therefore, the objectives of these experiments were to determine the expression patterns of mRNAs encoding BMP2, 4, 6 and 7 during ovarian follicular development in sheep, and to determine the effects of these growth factors on ovine granulosa cell functions in vitro. For comparative purposes, the effects of these BMPs were also determined in rat granulosa cells since these factors have been most widely studied in this poly-ovulatory species. As assessed by in situ hybridization, non-atretic ovine follicles expressed mRNA for BMP6 but not 2, 4 or 7. Furthermore, expression of BMP6 was limited to the oocyte of primordial as well as primary, pre-antral and antral follicles. Reverse transcription-PCR of granulosa cell mRNA detected low levels of all the BMPs in some pools of cells. BMP2, 4, 6 and 7 each inhibited progesterone production from ovine granulosa cells without affecting cellular proliferation/survival. Similarly, these BMPs inhibited progesterone production from rat granulosa cells. However, they also stimulated cellular proliferation/survival of the rat granulosa cells highlighting a species-specific difference for these growth factors. In conclusion, in sheep, BMP2, 4, 6 and 7 inhibit granulosa cell differentiation without affecting proliferation. However, as BMP2, 4 and 7 were not detectable by in situ hybridization in any cells of non-atretic ovarian follicles, it seems unlikely that these proteins would have an important intra-ovarian role in regulating follicular development in sheep. In contrast, localization of BMP6 mRNA in the oocyte suggests that this BMP family member may have a paracrine and/or autocrine role in regulating follicular growth in sheep, as has been shown for two other oocyte derived from members of the transforming growth factor superfamily, BMP15 and growth differentiation factor 9.

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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.