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When animals reproduce, females release eggs from their ovaries which then get fertilized by sperm from males. Each egg needs to properly mature within a collection of cells known as follicle cells before it can be let go. As the egg matures, so do the follicle cells surrounding it, until both are primed and ready to discharge the egg from the ovary. Mammals rely on a protein called SF-1 to mature their follicle cells, but it is unclear how this process works.
Most animals – from humans to fruit flies – release their eggs in a very similar way, using many of the same proteins and genes. For example, the gene for SF-1 in mammals is similar to a gene in fruit flies which codes for another protein called Ftz-f1. Since it is more straightforward to study ovaries in fruit flies than in humans and other mammals, investigating this protein could shed light on how follicle cells mature. However, it remained unclear whether Ftz-f1 plays a similar role to its mammalian counterpart.
Here, Knapp et al. show that Ftz-f1 is present in the follicle cells of fruit flies and is required for them to properly mature. Ftz-f1 controlled this process by regulating the activity of another protein called Sim. Further experiments found that the gene that codes for the SF-1 protein in mice was able to compensate for the loss of Ftz-f1 and drive follicle cells to mature.
Studying how ovaries release eggs is an essential part of understanding female fertility. This work highlights the similarities between these processes in mammals and fruit flies and may help us understand how ovaries work in humans and other mammals. In the future, the findings of Knapp et al. may lead to new therapies for infertility in females and other disorders that affect ovaries.