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MA Driancourt, K Reynaud, and J Smitz

After in vitro maturation, fertilization and development, the percentage of fertilized eggs developing to the blastocyst stage is usually lower in calves compared with cows. It is unknown whether this low ability to develop in vitro is inherent to calf oocytes or is caused by altered follicular maturation. The latter possibility was explored in the present study using two markers of follicle function: in vitro steroidogenesis by intact follicles and aromatase activity of follicular walls. Calf follicles > 9 mm in diameter had a low ability to produce oestradiol (ten times reduction compared with cows) despite a testosterone output by theca cells which was similar to that observed in cows. This finding is in agreement with the low aromatase activity of granulosa cells of calf follicles measured by tritiated water release assay. Qualitative and quantitative differences between calf and cow follicular fluids were assessed using western blotting (inhibin and activin, heat shock protein 90, Mullerian inhibiting substance) and assays (inhibin and activin) to determine whether this defective aromatase could be produced by alterations in the amounts of follicular proteins modulating aromatase (inhibin and activin, heat shock protein 90, Mullerian inhibiting substance). Western blotting of follicular fluid proteins demonstrated three main bands (59, 57 and < 30 kDa) and one minor band (34 kDa) with the anti-alpha inhibin antibody, whereas a single 18 kDa band was detected when an anti-beta inhibin antibody was used. Calf follicular fluid contained similar amounts of all main inhibin forms (alpha and beta) but a 34 kDa alpha inhibin form was missing. The amounts of dimeric inhibin were similar between cows and calves but small follicles from calves contained more activin. Single bands at 70 kDa (Mullerian inhibiting substance) and 90 kDa (heat shock protein 90) were detected by western blotting. Mullerian inhibiting substance was missing from calf follicular fluid and heat shock protein 90 was present in smaller amounts in calf versus cow follicular fluid. None of the above differences could explain the defective aromatase of calf follicles. Two-dimensional separation of the [35S]-labelled proteins secreted by follicular walls originating from calf or cow follicles matched for size and follicle health was performed and 151 spots were observed on the master gel, which summarized all the spots present at least once. Fifteen spots were present in calves and not in cows. Quantitative differences were also detected with three spots containing more proteins in cows than in calves. Whether some of these proteins can alter maturation of follicles or oocytes requires further investigation.

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K. Reynaud, J. P. Hanrahan, A. Donovan, and M. A. Driancourt

High prolificacy due to a gene that has a large effect on ovulation rate has been noted in Booroola and Inverdale ewes. High prolificacy in the Belclare breed (a composite developed from stocks selected for very large litter size or high ovulation rate) may be related to the segregation of two genes. The aims of this study were (i) to compare the morphological and functional features of ovulatory follicles from carriers (which could only be heterozygous for the genes of interest) and non-carriers, and (ii) to identify markers of the Belclare genes among secreted or cellular ovarian proteins. Belclare carrier ewes had more ovulatory follicles (4.9 ± 0.4) than did non-carrier ewes (2.0 ± 0.2) (P < 0.001). Ovulatory follicles from carriers were also smaller (4.4 ± 0.1 mm versus 5.7 ± 0.2 mm, P < 0.001) and contained a significantly reduced number of granulosa cells (P < 0.001). However, the proportion of proliferating granulosa cells in ovulatory follicles was similar in both groups. The in vitro secretion of steroids per follicle was only marginally lower in follicles from Belclare carriers compared with non-carriers. Furthermore, similar concentrations of steroidogenic enzymes were present in both groups, indicating that steroidogenic potential per granulosa cell is similar between carriers and non-carriers. Possible markers of the Belclare genes were identified among cellular proteins of follicular walls by two-dimensional PAGE and image analysis. Two spots at 78 and 49 kDa were always absent in samples from non-carriers. When secreted proteins in follicles from carriers were compared with those from non-carriers, two spots at 53 and 41 kDa were restricted to samples from carriers and three spots at 97, 91 and 45 kDa were unique to samples from non-carriers. Interestingly, the spot at 91 kDa is also affected by the Booroola gene.

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MA Driancourt, K Reynaud, R Cortvrindt, and J Smitz

Evidence from mouse mutants indicates that the Kit gene encoding KIT, a receptor present on the oocyte and theca cells, and the Mgf gene encoding KIT LIGAND, the ligand of KIT, are important regulators of oogenesis and folliculogenesis. Recently, in vitro cultures of fetal gonads, of follicles and of oocytes have identified specific targets for the KIT-KIT LIGAND interaction. In fetal gonads, an anti-apoptotic effect of KIT-KIT LIGAND interactions on primordial germ cells, oogonia and oocytes has been demonstrated. In postnatal ovaries, the initiation of follicular growth from the primordial pool and progression beyond the primary follicle stage appear to involve KIT-KIT LIGAND interactions. During early folliculogenesis, KIT together with KIT LIGAND controls oocyte growth and theca cell differentiation, and protects preantral follicles from apoptosis. Formation of an antral cavity requires a functional KIT-KIT LIGAND system. In large antral follicles, the KIT-KIT LIGAND interaction modulates the ability of the oocyte to undergo cytoplasmic maturation and helps to maximize thecal androgen output. Hence, many steps of oogenesis and folliculogenesis appear to be, at least in part, controlled by paracrine interactions between these two proteins.

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S Fair, K G Meade, K Reynaud, X Druart, and S P de Graaf

In species where semen is deposited in the vagina, the cervix has the unique function of facilitating progress of spermatozoa towards the site of fertilisation while also preventing the ascending influx of pathogens from the vagina. For the majority of species, advances in assisted reproduction techniques facilitate the bypassing of the cervix and therefore its effect on the transit of processed spermatozoa has been largely overlooked. The exception is in sheep, as it is currently not possible to traverse the ovine cervix with an inseminating catheter due to its complex anatomy, and semen must be deposited at the external cervical os. This results in unacceptably low pregnancy rates when frozen-thawed or liquid stored (>24 h) semen is inseminated. The objective of this review is to discuss the biological mechanisms which regulate cervical sperm selection. We assess the effects of endogenous and exogenous hormones on cervical mucus composition and discuss how increased mucus production and flow during oestrus stimulates sperm rheotaxis along the crypts and folds of the cervix. Emerging results shedding light on the sperm-cervical mucus interaction as well as the dialogue between spermatozoa and the innate immune system are outlined. Finally, ewe breed differences in cervical function and the impact of semen processing on the success of fertilisation, as well as the most fruitful avenues of further investigation in this area are proposed.

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K Reynaud, R Cortvrindt, J Smitz, F Bernex, JJ Panthier, and MA Driancourt

The KIT receptor, present on oocyte and theca cells in ovarian follicles, and its ligand, KIT LIGAND, produced by granulosa cells, are encoded at the Kit gene and the Mgf gene, respectively. Both Kit and Mgf mutations affect oogenesis and folliculogenesis. In this study, the ovarian function of heterozygous mice with a mutation Kit(W-lacZ) was examined. Firstly, the amounts of KIT and KIT LIGAND proteins in the ovaries of mice at different ages were determined. Secondly, in vivo and in vitro folliculogenesis of wild type and heterozygous mice were compared. Western blotting showed that the amounts of both KIT and KIT LIGAND proteins were decreased in mutant mice. Ovarian follicle populations were counted and more type 5a follicles and fewer type 5b (preantral follicles) were present in ovaries from Kit(W-lacZ/+) ovaries. Furthermore, the relationships between oocyte size and follicle size differed between wild type and heterozygous mice. This finding may be a consequence of altered proliferation of granulosa cells or of altered oocyte growth in mutant mice. Other features of folliculogenesis, such as initiation of follicular growth, total follicle population and follicular atresia, were not affected by the mutation. Analysis of in vitro folliculogenesis did not reveal other differences between wild type and mutant mice. It is concluded that the Kit(W-lacZ) mutation affects the expression of KIT and KIT LIGAND proteins, resulting in alterations in granulosa cell proliferation and/or oocyte growth in preantral follicles.

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M. A. Driancourt, P. Guet, K. Reynaud, A. Chadli, and M. G. Catelli

In cattle, it has been suggested that follicular fluid has direct modulatory effects on follicular growth and maturation. In the first part of this study, an in vitro test using aromatase activity of follicular wall fragments as an end point was validated for cattle follicles and was used to test whether follicular fluid (from dominant or non-dominant follicles) modulates aromatase activity. Fluid from dominant follicles at a concentration of 24 or 12% (obtained during the luteal and follicular phases, respectively) significantly inhibited aromatase activity. Inhibitory activity was low or absent in fluid from non-dominant follicles. FSH-stimulated aromatase activity was also reduced by fluid from dominant follicles, but not to a greater extent than in basal conditions. Finally, charcoal-treated fluid from dominant follicles retained its inhibitory activity. In contrast, ovarian venous serum draining a dominant follicle had no activity at the three concentrations tested (6, 12 and 24%). In the second part of the study, identification of the compounds involved in this modulatory activity was attempted using SDS-PAGE. Comparison of the fluorographs from de novo synthesized proteins stored in follicular fluid (inhibitory medium) with those secreted in incubation medium (inactive medium) demonstrated that one protein (90 kDa, pI 5.8) was significantly (P < 0.05) more abundant in fluid from dominant follicles (2.0 ± 0.09%) than in the culture medium (1.3 ± 0.1% of the total proteins). This protein had characteristics similar to those of heat shock protein 90 (hsp 90). Therefore, in the final part of the study, the presence of hsp 90 in ovarian cells and follicular fluid was investigated using immunohistochemistry and western blot analysis. After immunohistochemistry, a positive signal was detected mainly in the granulosa cells of larger follicles and to a smaller extent in thecal cells and oocytes. Western blot analysis also demonstrated the presence of hsp 90 in follicular wall fragments and fluid. When blotting was achieved on a sample of follicular fluid resolved by two-dimensional PAGE, the spot detected had a similar location to that at 90 kDa and pI 5.8. Addition of purified hsp to bovine follicles in vitro depressed aroaromatase altering the ltalue (and Kmossibly the poss value) oVmaxe enzyme. It is proposed that rop 90 is a functional regulator of follicular maturation through its action on aromatase.

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K Reynaud, A Fontbonne, N Marseloo, S Thoumire, M Chebrout, C Viaris de Lesegno, and S Chastant-Maillard

Early development in canine species follows a very specific pattern. Oocytes are ovulated at the germinal vesicle stage and meiotic resumption occurs in the oviduct. However, because of difficulties in the accurate determination of ovulation time and in the observation of oocyte nuclear stage by light microscopy, these early events have not been fully described. Moreover, the oocyte stage at which sperm penetration occurs is still uncertain since fertilization of immature oocytes has been reported in vivo and in vitro. The aim of this study was to establish the exact timing of in vivo meiotic resumption, fertilization and early embryo development in the bitch with reference to ovulation. Ovulation was first determined by ultrasonography, artificial inseminations were performed daily and oocytes/embryos were collected between 17 and 138 h after ovulation. After fixation and DNA/tubulin staining, the nuclear stage was observed by confocal microscopy. Of the 195 oocytes/embryos collected from 50 bitches, the germinal vesicle stage was the only one present until 44 h post-ovulation, and the first metaphase II stage was observed for the first time at 54 h. Sperm penetration of immature oocytes appeared to be exceptional (three out of 112 immature oocytes). In most cases, fertilization occurred from 90 h post-ovulation in metaphase II oocytes. Embryonic development was observed up to the eight-cell stage. No significant influence of bitch breed and age on ovulation rate, maturation and developmental kinetics was observed. However, some heterogeneity in the maturation/development process was observed within the cohort of oocytes/embryos collected from one bitch. In conclusion, the most peculiar aspect of the canine species remains oocyte meiotic maturation whereas fertilization follows the same pattern as in other mammals.