Blastocyst implantation requires molecular and cellular interactions between the uterine luminal epithelium and blastocyst trophectoderm. We have previously shown that heparin-binding EGF-like growth factor (HB-EGF) is induced in the mouse luminal epithelium solely at the site of blastocyst apposition at 16:00 hours on day 4 of pregnancy prior to the attachment reaction (22:00-23:00 hours), and that HB-EGF promotes blastocyst growth, zona-hatching and trophoblast outgrowth. To delineate which EGF receptors participate in blastocyst activation, the toxicity of chimeric toxins composed of HB-EGF or TGF-(α) coupled to Pseudomonas exotoxin (PE) were used as measures of receptor expression. TGF-(α) or HB-EGF binds to EGF-receptor (ErbB1), while HB-EGF, in addition, binds to ErbB4. The results indicate that ErbB1 is inefficient in mediating TGF-(α)-PE or HB-EGF-PE toxicity as follows: (i) TGF-(α)-PE was relatively inferior in killing blastocysts, 100-fold less than HB-EGF-PE, (ii) analysis of blastocysts isolated from cross-bred egfr+/− mice demonstrated that HB-EGF-PE, but not TGF-(α)-PE, killed egfr−/− blastocysts, and (iii) blastocysts that survived TGF-(α)-PE were nevertheless killed by HB-EGF-PE. HB-EGF-PE toxicity was partially mediated by cell surface heparan sulfate proteoglycans (HSPG), since a peptide corresponding to the heparin-binding domain of HB-EGF as well as heparitinase treatment protected the blastocysts from the toxic effects of HB-EGF-PE by about 40%. ErbB4 is a candidate for being an HB-EGF-responsive receptor since RT-PCR analysis demonstrated that day 4 mouse blastocysts express two different erbB4 isoforms and immunostaining with anti-ErbB4 antibodies confirmed that ErbB4 protein is expressed at the apical surface of the trophectoderm cells. It is concluded that (i) HB-EGF interacts with the blastocyst cell surface via high-affinity receptors other than ErbB1, (ii) the HB-EGF interaction with high-affinity blastocysts receptors is regulated by heparan sulfate, and (iii) ErbB4 is a candidate for being a high-affinity receptor for HB-EGF on the surface of implantation-competent blastocysts.

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