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S L Rodriguez-Zas, Y Ko, H A Adams, and B R Southey

Embryo development is a complex process orchestrated by hundreds of genes and influenced by multiple environmental factors. We demonstrate the application of simple and effective meta-study and gene network analyses strategies to characterize the co-regulation of the embryo transcriptome in a systems biology framework. A meta-analysis of nine microarray experiments aimed at characterizing the effect of agents potentially harmful to mouse embryos improved the ability to accurately characterize gene co-expression patterns compared with traditional within-study approaches. Simple overlap of significant gene lists may result in under-identification of genes differentially expressed. Sample-level meta-analysis techniques are recommended when common treatment levels or samples are present in more than one study. Otherwise, study-level meta-analysis of standardized estimates provided information on the significance and direction of the differential expression. Cell communication pathways were highly represented among the genes differentially expressed across studies. Mixture and dependence Bayesian network approaches were able to reconstruct embryo-specific interactions among genes in the adherens junction, axon guidance, and actin cytoskeleton pathways. Gene networks inferred by both approaches were mostly consistent with minor differences due to the complementary nature of the methodologies. The top–down approach used to characterize gene networks can offer insights into the mechanisms by which the conditions studied influence gene expression. Our work illustrates that further examination of gene expression information from microarray studies including meta- and gene network analyses can help characterize transcript co-regulation and identify biomarkers for the reproductive and embryonic processes under a wide range of conditions.

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N T Rogers, G Halet, Y Piao, J Carroll, M S H Ko, and K Swann

A series of Ca2+ oscillations during mammalian fertilization is necessary and sufficient to stimulate meiotic resumption and pronuclear formation. It is not known how effectively development continues in the absence of the initial Ca2+ signal. We have triggered parthenogenetic egg activation with cycloheximide that causes no Ca2+ increase, with ethanol that causes a single large Ca2+ increase, or with Sr2+ that causes Ca2+ oscillations. Eggs were co-treated with cytochalasin D to make them diploid and they formed pronuclei and two-cell embryos at high rates with each activation treatment. However, far fewer of the embryos that were activated by cycloheximide reached the blastocyst stagecompared tothose activated by Sr2+ orethanol. Any cycloheximide-activated embryos that reached the blastocyst stage had a smaller inner cell mass number and a greater rate of apoptosis than Sr2+-activated embryos. The poor development of cycloheximide-activated embryos was due to the lack of Ca2+ increase because they developed to blastocyst stages at high rates when co-treated with Sr2+ or ethanol. Embryos activated by either Sr2+ or cycloheximide showed similar signs of initial embryonic genome activation (EGA) when measured using a reporter gene. However, microarray analysis of gene expression at the eight-cell stage showed that activation by Sr2+ leads to a distinct pattern of gene expression from that seen with embryos activated by cycloheximide. These data suggest that activation of mouse eggs in the absence of a Ca2+ signal does not affect initial parthenogenetic events, but can influence later gene expression and development.