Background: The maturation and successful acquisition of developmental competence by an oocyte, the female gamete, during folliculogenesis is highly dependent on molecular interactions with somatic cells. Most of the cellular interactions identified, thus far, are modulated by growth factors, ions or metabolites. We hypothesized that this interaction is also modulated at the transcriptional level, which leads to the formation of gene regulatory networks between the oocyte and cumulus cells. We tested this hypothesis by analyzing transcriptome data from single oocytes and the surrounding cumulus cells collected from antral follicles employing an analytical framework to determine interdependencies at the transcript level.
Results: We overlapped our transcriptome data with putative protein-protein interactions and identified hundreds of ligand-receptor pairs that can transduce paracrine signaling between an oocyte and cumulus cells. We determined that 499 ligand-encoding genes expressed in oocytes and cumulus cells are functionally associated with transcription regulation (FDR < 0.05). Ligand-encoding genes with specific expression in oocytes or cumulus cells were enriched for biological functions that are likely associated with the coordinated formation of transzonal projections from cumulus cells that reach the oocyte's membrane. Thousands of gene pairs exhibit significant linear co-expression (absolute correlation > 0.85, FDR < 1.8 × 10- 5) patterns between oocytes and cumulus cells. Hundreds of co-expressing genes showed clustering patterns associated with biological functions (FDR < 0.5) necessary for a coordinated function between the oocyte and cumulus cells during folliculogenesis (i.e. regulation of transcription, translation, apoptosis, cell differentiation and transport).
Conclusion: Our analyses revealed a complex and functional gene regulatory circuit between the oocyte and surrounding cumulus cells. The regulatory profile of each cumulus-oocyte complex is likely associated with the oocytes' developmental potential to derive an embryo.
Keywords: Gametogenesis; Gene regulatory networks; Inter-cellular communication; Oocyte-cumulus signaling.