Knockout mouse technology has been used over the last decade to define the essential roles of ovarian-expressed genes and uncover genetic interactions. In particular, we have used this technology to study the function of multiple members of the transforming growth factor-beta superfamily including inhibins, activins, and growth differentiation factor 9 (GDF-9 or Gdf9). Knockout mice lacking GDF-9 are infertile due to a block in folliculogenesis at the primary follicle stage. In addition, recombinant GDF-9 regulates multiple cumulus granulosa cell functions in the periovulatory period including hyaluronic acid synthesis and cumulus expansion. We have also cloned an oocyte-specific homolog of GDF-9 from mice and humans, which is termed bone morphogenetic protein 15 (BMP-15 or Bmp15). To define the function of BMP-15 in mice, we generated embryonic stem cells and knockout mice, which have a null mutation in this X-linked gene. Male chimeric and Bmp15 null mice are normal and fertile. In contrast to Bmp15 null males and Gdf9 knockout females, Bmp15 null females (Bmp15(-/-)) are subfertile and usually have minimal ovarian histopathological defects, but demonstrate decreased ovulation and fertilization rates. To further decipher possible direct or indirect genetic interactions between GDF-9 and BMP-15, we have generated double mutant mice lacking one or both alleles of these related homologs. Double homozygote females (Bmp15(-/-)Gdf9(-/-)) display oocyte loss and cysts and resemble Gdf9(-/-) mutants. In contrast, Bmp15(-/-)Gdf9(+/-) female mice have more severe fertility defects than Bmp15(-/-) females, which appear to be due to abnormalities in ovarian folliculogenesis, cumulus cell physiology, and fertilization. Thus, the dosage of intact Bmp15 and Gdf9 alleles directly influences the destiny of the oocyte during folliculogenesis and in the periovulatory period. These studies have important implications for human fertility control and the maintenance of fertility and normal ovarian physiology.
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