Growth differentiation factor-9 (GDF9) and bone morphogenetic protein-15 (BMP15) are co-expressed exclusively in oocytes throughout most of folliculogenesis and play central roles in controlling ovarian physiology. Although both growth factors exist as homodimers, recent evidence indicates that GDF9 and BMP15 can also heterodimerize to form the potent growth factor cumulin. Within the cumulin complex, BMP15 "activates" latent GDF9, enabling potent signaling in granulosa cells via type I receptors (i.e. activin receptor-like kinase-4/5 (ALK4/5)) and SMAD2/3 transcription factors. In the cumulin heterodimer, two distinct type I receptor interfaces are formed compared with homodimeric GDF9 and BMP15. Previous studies have highlighted the potential of cumulin to improve treatment of female infertility, but, as a noncovalent heterodimer, cumulin is difficult to produce and purify without contaminating GDF9 and BMP15 homodimers. In this study we addressed this challenge by focusing on the cumulin interface formed by the helix of the GDF9 chain and the fingers of the BMP15 chain. We demonstrate that unique BMP15 finger residues at this site (Arg301, Gly304, His307, and Met369) enable potent activation of the SMAD2/3 pathway. Incorporating these BMP15 residues into latent GDF9 generated a highly potent growth factor, called hereafter Super-GDF9. Super-GDF9 was >1000-fold more potent than WT human GDF9 and 4-fold more potent than cumulin in SMAD2/3-responsive transcriptional assays in granulosa cells. Our demonstration that Super-GDF9 can effectively promote mouse cumulus cell expansion and improve oocyte quality in vitro represents a potential solution to the current challenges of producing and purifying intact cumulin.
- bone morphogenetic protein (BMP)
- granulosa cells
- growth factor
- oocyte maturation
- receptor protein serine/threonine kinase
- SMAD transcription factor