The zona pellucida (ZP) is an extracellular matrix (ECM) that surrounds all mammalian oocytes, eggs, and embryos and plays vital roles during oogenesis, fertilization, and preimplantation development. The mouse and human ZP is composed of three or four unique proteins, respectively, called ZP1-4, that are synthesized, processed, and secreted by oocytes during their growth phase. All ZP proteins have a zona pellucida domain (ZPD) that consists of ≈270 amino acids and has 8 conserved Cys residues present as four intramolecular disulfides. Secreted ZP proteins assemble into long fibrils around growing oocytes with ZP2-ZP3 dimers located periodically along the fibrils. The fibrils are cross-linked by ZP1 to form a thick, transparent ECM to which sperm must first bind and then penetrate during fertilization of eggs. Inactivation of mouse ZP1, ZP2, or ZP3 by gene targeting affects both ZP formation around oocytes and fertility. Female mice with eggs that lack a ZP due to inactivation of either ZP2 or ZP3 are completely infertile, whereas inactivation of ZP1 results in construction of an abnormal ZP and reduced fertility. Results of a large number of studies of infertile female patients strongly suggest that gene sequence variations (GSV) in human ZP1, ZP2, or ZP3 due to point, missense, or frameshift mutations have similar deleterious effects on ZP formation and female fertility. These findings are discussed in light of our current knowledge of ZP protein synthesis, processing, secretion, and assembly.
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