Seasonal estrus is a critical limiting factor of animal fecundity, and it involves changes in both ovarian biology and hormone secretion in different seasons. Previous studies indicate that two classes of small RNAs (miRNAs and piRNAs) play important regulatory roles in ovarian biology. To understand the roles of small RNA-mediated post-transcriptional regulation in ovine seasonal estrus, the variation in expression patterns of ovarian small RNAs during anestrus and the breeding season were analyzed using Solexa sequencing technology. In addition, reproductive hormone levels were determined during ovine anestrus and the breeding season.
A total of 483 miRNAs (including 97 known, 369 conserved and 17 predicated novel miRNAs), which belong to 183 different miRNA families, were identified in ovaries of Tan sheep and Small Tail Han (STH) sheep. Compared with the three stages of the breeding season, 25 shared significantly differentially expressed (including 19 up- and six down-regulated) miRNAs were identified in ovine anestrus. KEGG Pathway analysis revealed that the target genes for some of the differentially expressed miRNAs were involved in reproductive hormone related pathways (e.g. steroid biosynthesis, androgen and estrogen metabolism and GnRH signaling pathway) as well as follicular/luteal development related pathways. Moreover, the expression of the differentially expressed miRNAs and most of their target genes were negatively correlated in the above pathways. Furthermore, the levels of estrogen, progesterone and LH in ovine anestrus were significantly lower than those in the breeding season. Combining the results of pathway enrichment analysis, expression of target genes and hormone measurement, we suggest that these differentially expressed miRNAs in anestrus might participate in attenuation of ovarian activity by regulating the above pathways. Besides miRNAs, a large and unexpectedly diverse set of piRNAs were also identified.
The miRNA profiles of ovine ovaries in anestrus were presented for the first time. The identification and characterization of miRNAs that are differentially expressed between ovine anestrus and the breeding season will help understanding of the role of miRNAs in the regulation of seasonal estrus, and provides candidates for determining miRNAs which could be potentially used to regulate ovine seasonal estrus.
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