PloS one

Germ cells are not required to establish the female pathway in mouse fetal gonads.

PMID 23091613


The fetal gonad is composed of a mixture of somatic cell lineages and germ cells. The fate of the gonad, male or female, is determined by a population of somatic cells that differentiate into Sertoli or granulosa cells and direct testis or ovary development. It is well established that germ cells are not required for the establishment or maintenance of Sertoli cells or testis cords in the male gonad. However, in the agametic ovary, follicles do not form suggesting that germ cells may influence granulosa cell development. Prior investigations of ovaries in which pre-meiotic germ cells were ablated during fetal life reported no histological changes during stages prior to birth. However, whether granulosa cells underwent normal molecular differentiation was not investigated. In cases where germ cell loss occurred secondary to other mutations, transdifferentiation of granulosa cells towards a Sertoli cell fate was observed, raising questions about whether germ cells play an active role in establishing or maintaining the fate of granulosa cells. We developed a group of molecular markers associated with ovarian development, and show here that the loss of pre-meiotic germ cells does not disrupt the somatic ovarian differentiation program during fetal life, or cause transdifferentiation as defined by expression of Sertoli markers. Since we do not find defects in the ovarian somatic program, the subsequent failure to form follicles at perinatal stages is likely attributable to the absence of germ cells rather than to defects in the somatic cells.