All vertebrate eggs are surrounded by an extracellular matrix. This matrix is known as the zona pellucida in mammals and is critically important for the survival of growing oocytes, successful fertilization and the passage of early embryos through the oviduct. The mouse zona pellucida is composed of three glycoproteins (ZP1, ZP2 and ZP3), each encoded by a single copy gene. Using targeted mutagenesis in embryonic stem cells, Zp2-null mouse lines have been established. ZP1 and ZP3 proteins continue to be synthesized and form a thin zona matrix in early follicles that is not sustained in pre-ovulatory follicles. The abnormal zona matrix does not affect initial folliculogenesis, but there is a significant decrease in the number of antral stage follicles in ovaries isolated from mice lacking a zona pellucida. Few eggs are detected in the oviduct after stimulation with gonadotropins, and no two-cell embryos are recovered after mating Zp2-null females with normal male mice. The structural defect is more severe than that observed in Zp1-null mice, which have decreased fecundity, but not quite as severe as that observed in Zp3-null mice, which never form a visible zona pellucida and are sterile. Although zona-free oocytes matured and fertilized in vitro can progress to the blastocyst stage, the developmental potential of blastocysts derived from either Zp2- or Zp3-null eggs appears compromised and, after transfer to foster mothers, live births have not been observed. Thus, in addition to its role in fertilization and protection of early embryos, these data are consistent with the zona pellucida maintaining interactions between granulosa cells and oocytes during folliculogenesis that are critical to maximize developmental competence of oocytes.

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