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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, 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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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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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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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.

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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.