The birth of ‘Dolly’, the first mammal cloned from an adult donor cell, has sparked a flurry of research activities to improve cloning technology and to understand the underlying mechanism of epigenetic reprogramming of the transferred somatic cell nucleus. Especially in ruminants, somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) is frequently associated with pathological changes in the foetal and placental phenotype and has significant consequences for development both before and after birth. The most critical factor is epigenetic reprogramming of the transferred somatic cell nucleus from its differentiated status into the totipotent state of the early embryo. This involves an erasure of the gene expression program of the respective donor cell and the establishment of the well-orchestrated sequence of expression of an estimated number of 10 000–12 000 genes regulating embryonic and foetal development. The following article reviews the present knowledge on the epigenetic reprogramming of the transferred somatic cell nucleus, with emphasis on DNA methylation, imprinting, X-chromosome inactivation and telomere length restoration in bovine development. Additionally, we briefly discuss other approaches towards epigenetic nuclear reprogramming, including the fusion of somatic and embryonic stem cells and the overexpression of genes crucial in the formation and maintenance of the pluripotent status. Improvements in our understanding of this dramatic epigenetic reprogramming event will be instrumental in realising the great potential of SCNT for basic biological research and for various agricultural and biomedical applications.
Heiner Niemann, X Cindy Tian, W Allan King and Rita S F Lee
Néstor Saiz and Berenika Plusa
During mammalian preimplantation development, the fertilised egg gives rise to a group of pluripotent embryonic cells, the epiblast, and to the extraembryonic lineages that support the development of the foetus during subsequent phases of development. This preimplantation period not only accommodates the first cell fate decisions in a mammal's life but also the transition from a totipotent cell, the zygote, capable of producing any cell type in the animal, to cells with a restricted developmental potential. The cellular and molecular mechanisms governing the balance between developmental potential and lineage specification have intrigued developmental biologists for decades. The preimplantation mouse embryo offers an invaluable system to study cell differentiation as well as the emergence and maintenance of pluripotency in the embryo. Here we review the most recent findings on the mechanisms controlling these early cell fate decisions. The model that emerges from the current evidence indicates that cell differentiation in the preimplantation embryo depends on cellular interaction and intercellular communication. This strategy underlies the plasticity of the early mouse embryo and ensures the correct specification of the first mammalian cell lineages.
Atsushi Fukuda, Atsushi Mitani, Toshiyuki Miyashita, Hisato Kobayashi, Akihiro Umezawa and Hidenori Akutsu
Spatiotemporal expression of transcription factors is crucial for genomic reprogramming. Pou5f1 (Oct4) is an essential transcription factor for reprogramming. A recent study reported that OCT4A, which is crucial for establishment and maintenance of pluripotent cells, is expressed in oocytes, but maternal OCT4A is dispensable for totipotency induction. Whereas another study reported that OCT4B, which is not related to pluripotency, is predominantly expressed instead of OCT4A during early preimplantation phases in mice. To determine the expression states of OCT4 in murine preimplantation embryos, we conducted in-depth expression and functional analyses. We found that pluripotency-related OCT4 mainly localizes to the cytoplasm in early preimplantation phases, with no major nuclear localization until the 8–16-cell stage despite high expression in both oocytes and early embryos. RNA-sequencing analysis using oocytes and early preimplantation embryos could not identify the splice variants creating alternative forms of OCT4 protein. Forced expression of OCT4 in zygotes by the injection of polyadenylated mRNA clearly showed nuclear localization of OCT4 protein around 3–5-fold greater than physiological levels and impaired developmental competency in a dose-dependent manner. Embryos with modest overexpression of OCT4 could develop to the 16-cell stage; however, more than 50% of the embryos were arrested at this stage, similar to the results for OCT4 depletion. In contrast, extensive overexpression of OCT4 resulted in complete arrest at the 2-cell stage accompanied by downregulation of zygotically activated genes and repetitive elements related to the totipotent state. These results demonstrated that OCT4 protein localization was spatiotemporally altered during preimplantation development, and strict control of Oct4 protein levels was essential for proper totipotential reprogramming.
Michele Boiani, Ellen Casser, Georg Fuellen and Elisabeth S Christians
The mammalian zygote is a totipotent cell that generates all the cells of a new organism through embryonic development. However, if one asks about the totipotency of blastomeres after one or two zygotic divisions, opinions differ. As it is impossible to determine the individual developmental potency of early blastomeres in an intact embryo, experiments of blastomere isolation were conducted in various species, showing that two-cell blastomeres could give rise to a new organism when sister cells were separated. A mainstream interpretation was that each of the sister mammalian blastomeres was equally totipotent. However, reevaluation of those experiments raised some doubts about the real prevalence of cases in which this interpretation could truly be validated. We compiled experiments that tested the individual developmental potency of early mammalian blastomeres in a cell-autonomous way (i.e. excluding nuclear transfer and chimera production). We then confronted the developmental abilities with reported molecular differences between sister blastomeres. The reevaluated observations were at odds with the mainstream view: A viable two-cell embryo can already include one non-totipotent blastomere. We were, thus, led to propose a revised model for totipotency continuity based on the construction of the zygote as a mosaic, which accounts for differential inheritance of totipotency-relevant components between sister blastomeres. This takes place with no preordained mechanisms that would ensure a reproducible partition. This model, which is compatible with the body of data on regulative properties of mammalian early embryos, aims at tempering the rigid interpretation that discounted maternal constraints on totipotency.
Rupsha Fraser and Chih-Jen Lin
Gametogenesis (spermatogenesis and oogenesis) is accompanied by the acquisition of gender-specific epigenetic marks, such as DNA methylation, histone modifications and regulation by small RNAs, to form highly differentiated, but transcriptionally silent cell-types in preparation for fertilisation. Upon fertilisation, extensive global epigenetic reprogramming takes place to remove the previously acquired epigenetic marks and produce totipotent zygotic states. It is the aim of this review to delineate the cellular and molecular events involved in maternal, paternal and zygotic epigenetic reprogramming from the time of gametogenesis, through fertilisation, to the initiation of zygotic genome activation for preimplantation embryonic development. Recent studies have begun to uncover the indispensable functions of epigenetic players during gametogenesis, fertilisation and preimplantation embryo development, and a more comprehensive understanding of these early events will be informative for increasing pregnancy success rates, adding particular value to assisted fertility programmes.
Chelsea Marcho, Wei Cui and Jesse Mager
Successful mammalian development requires descendants of single-cell zygotes to differentiate into diverse cell types even though they contain the same genetic material. Preimplantation dynamics are first driven by the necessity of reprogramming haploid parental epigenomes to reach a totipotent state. This process requires extensive erasure of epigenetic marks shortly after fertilization. During the few short days after formation of the zygote, epigenetic programs are established and are essential for the first lineage decisions and differentiation. Here we review the current understanding of DNA methylation and histone modification dynamics responsible for these early changes during mammalian preimplantation development. In particular, we highlight insights that have been gained through next-generation sequencing technologies comparing human embryos to other models as well as the recent discoveries of active DNA demethylation mechanisms at play during preimplantation.
R. Anderson, K. Schaible, J. Heasman and C. Wylie
During normal embryonic development, mammalian germ cells use both cell migration and aggregation to form the primitive sex cords. Germ cells must be able to interact with their environment and each other to accomplish this; however, the molecular basis of early germ cell adhesion is not well characterized. Differential adhesion is also thought to occur in the adult seminiferous tubules, since germ cells move from the periphery to the lumen as they differentiate. In a screen for additional adhesion molecules expressed by the germ line, expression of the homophilic adhesion molecule, Ep-CAM, was identified in embryonic, neonatal and adult germ cells using immunocytochemistry and flow cytometry with an Ep-CAM-specific monoclonal antibody. At embryonic stages, germ cells were found to express Ep-CAM during migration at embryonic day 10.5 and early gonad assembly at embryonic day 12.5. Expression of Ep-CAM was also found on neonatal male and female germ cells. In the adult testis, Ep-CAM was detected only on spermatogonia, and was absent from more differentiated cells. Finally, embryonic stem cells were shown to express this receptor. It is proposed that Ep-CAM plays a role in the development of the germ line and the behaviour of totipotent cells.
David Monk, Marta Sanchez-Delgado and Rosemary Fisher
Before activation of the embryonic genome, the oocyte provides many of the RNAs and proteins required for the epigenetic reprogramming and the transition to a totipotent state. Targeted disruption of a subset of oocyte-derived transcripts in mice results in early embryonic lethality and cleavage-stage embryonic arrest as highlighted by the members of the subcortical maternal complex (SCMC). Maternal-effect recessive mutations of NLRP7, KHDC3L and NLRP5 in humans are associated with variable reproductive outcomes, biparental hydatidiform moles (BiHM) and widespread multi-locus imprinting disturbances. The precise mechanism of action of these genes is unknown, but the maternal-effect phenomenon suggests a function during early pre-implantation development, while biochemical and genetic studies implement them as SCMC members or interacting partners. In this review article, we discuss the role of the NLRP family members and the SCMC proteins in the establishment of genomic imprints and post-zygotic methylation maintenance, the recent advances made in the understanding of the biology involved in BiHM formation and the wider roles of the SCMC in mammalian reproduction.
Rhiannon E Lloyd, Raquel Romar, Carmen Matás, Alfonso Gutiérrez-Adán, William V Holt and Pilar Coy
In mammals, fertilization and early pre-implantation development occur in the oviduct. Previous results obtained in our laboratory have identified specific molecules in the oviduct that affect porcine sperm–egg interactions. The aim of the present study was to determine whether the contact between oocytes and oviductal fluid also affect embryo development, quality, and gene expression. In vitro matured porcine oocytes were exposed to bovine oviductal fluid (bOF) for 30 min prior to fertilization. Cleavage and blastocyst development rates were significantly higher from bOF-treated oocytes than from untreated oocytes. Blastocysts obtained from bOF-treated oocytes had significantly greater total cell numbers than those obtained from untreated oocytes. Using real-time PCR, grade 1 (very good morphological quality) and grade 2 (good morphological quality) blastocysts were analyzed for gene transcripts related to apoptosis (BAX, BCL2L1), mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) transcription/replication (POLG, POLG2, and TFAM), blastomere connection and morula compaction (GJA1), and blastocyst formation and pluripotency (POU5F1). We found that the entire set of genes analyzed was differentially expressed between grade 1 and 2 blastocysts. Furthermore, bOF treatment reduced the ratio of BAX to BCL2L1 transcripts and enhanced the abundance of TFAM transcripts in grade 2 blastocysts. Not only do these findings demonstrate that factors within the bOF act on porcine oocytes both quickly and positively, but they also suggest that such factors could promote embryo development and quality by protecting them against adverse impacts on mtDNA transcription/replication and apoptosis induced by the culture environment.
Mitinori Saitou and Masashi Yamaji
The specification of germ cell fate in development initiates mechanisms essential for the perpetuation of genetic information across the generations. Recent studies in mice have shown that germ cell specification requires at least three key molecular/cellular events: repression of the somatic program, re-acquisition of potential pluripotency, and an ensuing genome-wide epigenetic reprogramming. Moreover, a signaling and transcriptional principle governing these processes has been identified, raising the possibility of inducing the germ cell fate precisely from pluripotent stem cells in culture. These advances will in turn serve as a basis to explore the mechanism of germ cell specification in other mammals, including humans. The recapitulation of germ cell development in humans in culture will provide unprecedented opportunities to understand the basis of the propagation of our genome, both under normal and diseased conditions.