Sheep (Ovis aries) are a highly diverse species, with more than 900 different breeds that vary significantly in their physiological characteristics, including ovulation rate and fecundity. From examination of inherited patterns of ovulation rate, several breeds have been identified with point mutations in two growth factor genes that are expressed in oocytes. Currently, five different point mutations have been identified in the BMP15 (GDF9b) gene and one in GDF9. Animals heterozygous for the GDF9 and/or the BMP15 mutations have higher ovulation rates than their wild-type counterparts. In contrast, those homozygous for any of the aforementioned BMP15 or GDF9 mutations are sterile owing to arrested follicular development. In bovine and ovine ovaries, GDF9 was expressed exclusively in oocytes throughout follicular growth from the primordial stage of development, whereas in sheep BMP15 was expressed exclusively in oocytes from the primary stage: no data for the ontogeny of BMP15 expression are currently available for cattle. In vitro, ovine growth differentiation factor 9 (oGDF9) has no effect on 3H-thymidine incorporation by either bovine or ovine granulosa cells, whereas ovine bone morphogenetic protein 15 (oBMP15) has modest (1.2- to 1.6-fold; P < 0.05) stimulatory effects. Ovine GDF9 or oBMP15 alone inhibited progesterone production by bovine granulosa cells, whereas in ovine cells only oGDF9 was inhibitory. The effects of oGDF9 and oBMP15 together were often cooperative and not always the same as those observed for each factor alone. Active immunisation of ewes with BMP15 and/or GDF9 peptides affected ovarian follicular development and ovulation rate. Depending on the GDF9 and/or BMP15 vaccine formulation, ovulation rate was either increased or suppressed. A primary and single booster immunisation of ewes with a BMP15 peptide in a water-based adjuvant has led to 19-40% increases in lambs born per ewe lambing. Collectively, the evidence suggests that oocyte signalling molecules have profound effects on reproduction in mammals, including rodents, humans and ruminants. Moreover, in vivo manipulation of these oocyte signalling molecules provides new opportunities for the management of the fertility of ruminants.
- Activin-like kinase 6
- Bone morphogenetic protein 15
- Growth differentiation factor 9
- Ovulation rate