Background: In a growth phase occurring during most of folliculogenesis, the oocyte produces and accumulates molecules and organelles that are fundamental for the development of the preimplantation embryo. At ovulation, growth is followed by a phase of maturation that, although confined within a short temporal window, encompasses modifications of the oocyte chromosome complement and rearrangements of cytoplasmic components that are crucial for the achievement of developmental competence. Cumulus cells (CCs) are central to the process of maturation, providing the oocyte with metabolic support and regulatory cues.
Methods: PubMed was used to search the MEDLINE database for peer-reviewed original articles and reviews concerning oocyte maturation in mammals. Searches were performed adopting 'oocyte' and 'maturation' as main terms, in association with other keywords expressing concepts relevant to the subject. The most relevant publications, i.e. those concerning major phenomena occurring during oocyte maturation in established experimental models and the human species, were assessed and discussed critically to offer a comprehensive description of the process of oocyte maturation.
Results: By applying the above described search criteria, 6165 publications were identified, of which 543 were review articles. The number of publications increased steadily from 1974 (n = 7) to 2013 (n = 293). In 2014, from January to the time of submission of this manuscript, 140 original manuscripts and reviews were published. The studies selected for this review extend previous knowledge and shed new and astounding knowledge on oocyte maturation. It has long been known that resumption of meiosis and progression to the metaphase II stage is intrinsic to oocyte maturation, but novel findings have revealed that specific chromatin configurations are indicative of a propensity of the oocyte to resume the meiotic process and acquire developmental competence. Recently, genetic integrity has also been characterized as a factor with important implications for oocyte maturation and quality. Changes occurring in the cytoplasmic compartment are equally fundamental. Microtubules, actin filaments and chromatin not only interact to finalize chromosome segregation, but also crucially co-operate to establish cell asymmetry. This allows polar body extrusion to be accomplished with minimal loss of cytoplasm. The cytoskeleton also orchestrates the rearrangement of organelles in preparation for fertilization. For example, during maturation the distribution of the endoplasmic reticulum undergoes major modifications guided by microtubules and microfilaments to make the oocyte more competent in the generation of intracellular Ca(2+) oscillations that are pivotal for triggering egg activation. Cumulus cells are inherent to the process of oocyte maturation, emitting regulatory signals via direct cell-to-cell contacts and paracrine factors. In addition to nurturing the oocyte with key metabolites, CCs regulate meiotic resumption and modulate the function of the oocyte cytoskeleton.
Conclusions: Although the importance of oocyte maturation for the achievement of female meiosis has long been recognized, until recently much less was known of the significance of this process in relation to other fundamental developmental events. Studies on chromatin dynamics and integrity have extended our understanding of female meiosis. Concomitantly, cytoskeletal and organelle changes and the ancillary role of CCs have been better appreciated. This is expected to inspire novel concepts and advances in assisted reproduction technologies, such as the development of novel in vitro maturation systems and the identification of biomarkers of oocyte quality.
Keywords: cytoplasm; in vitro maturation of oocytes; meiosis; oocytes; organelles.
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