Investigating the Intrafollicular Factors Affecting Oocyte Developmental Competency
The number of cycles of assisted reproductive technologies (ART) performed increased by ~9.5 % globally between 2008 and 2010. In spite of this, the success rate in terms of delivery was only ~19.0 % (Dyer et al., 2016). This discrepancy between the demand for, and success of, these technologies necessitates the development of tools to improve ART efficiency. To facilitate this, a better understanding of how the microenvironment changes within the developing follicle to culminate in a mature, developmentally-competent oocyte is required. This study employed an in vivo and in vitro ovine model to investigate the relationship between the surrounding microenvironment and oocyte maturation, and in particular, the attainment of oocyte developmental competency and high-quality embryos. The first objective of this PhD study was to comprehensively investigate the changing microenvironment of in vivo matured, presumptive preovulatory (PPOV) follicles from wild-type (++) and high ovulation rate (OR; I+B+) ewes. The high OR ewes were heterozygous carriers of mutations in BMP15 (I+) and BMPRIB (B+). Functional differences in follicular somatic (granulosa and cumulus) cells between these genotypes, including differential gonadotropin responsiveness of granulosa cells, composition of follicular fluid and gene expression profiles in cumulus cells were evident. These differences emerged as part of a compensatory mechanism by which oocytes from smaller follicles, containing fewer granulosa cells, achieved developmental competency in I+B+ ewes. The second objective of this PhD study was to develop new approaches for improving current in vitro maturation (IVM) strategies. The first approach utilised in this study focused on developing biomarkers that could be used to improve prediction of developmental competency in oocytes and in vitro produced embryos. This involved interrogating the hypothesis that a combination of molecular and morphokinetic biomarkers would better predict the developmental competency of oocytes and embryos compared to using these biomarkers alone. The second approach utilised in this PhD study tested the effects of modulating IVM conditions to better mimic the follicular microenvironment of a high, compared to a low, OR species on oocyte developmental competency and embryo quality. This involved supplementing IVM media with different ratios of two oocyte-secreted growth factors, i.e. GDF9:BMP15, that were representative of low or high OR species. These approaches demonstrated significant potential and warrant further investigation. The most significant finding of this study was that despite variances in the surrounding microenvironment during in vivo and in vitro oocyte maturation that culminated in differential gene expression patterns in cumulus cells, and divergent gonadotropin-responsiveness of granulosa cells, the gene expression signatures of developmentally-competent oocytes and the morphokinetics of high-quality embryos were unaltered. This confirms the value of developing such biomarkers for oocyte development competency and embryo quality that remain unaltered despite a changing surrounding environment. Interestingly, simulating the ratio of GDF9:BMP15 that oocytes from high OR species are exposed to during maturation improved developmental competency in oocytes as demonstrated by increased blastocyst rates. Furthermore, this study has demonstrated that combinations of molecular (cumulus cell gene expression) and morphokinetic biomarkers improved the ability to predict developmental competency in oocytes and embryos. Overall, this study revealed novel information regarding the follicular microenvironment during final maturation and identified several novel approaches to improving the efficiency of ART.