Cervical ripening is associated with loss of structural integrity and tensile strength, thus enabling the cervix to dilate at term. It is characterized by changes in glycosaminoglycan composition, increased water content, and a progressive reorganization of the collagen network. The peptide hormone relaxin via interaction with its receptor, relaxin family peptide receptor 1 (RXFP1), promotes tissue hydration and increases cervical hyaluronan (HA) concentrations, but the mechanisms that regulate these effects are not known. This study in relaxin mutant (Rln-/-) mice tested the hypothesis that relaxin regulates HA synthase and aquaporin (AQP) expression in the cervix. We also assessed expression of the RXFP1 protein by immunohistochemistry. Pregnant Rln-/- mice had lower Has2 and Aqp3 expression on d 18.5 of pregnancy and decreased cervical HA compared with wild-type Rln+/+ mice. Chronic infusion of relaxin for 4 or 6 d in pregnant Rln-/- mice reversed these phenotypes and increased Has2 and Aqp3 compared with placebo controls. Relaxin-treated mice also had lower Has1 and Aqp5. Changes in gene expression were paralleled by increases in cervical HA and variations in AQP3 and AQP5 protein localization in epithelial cells of Rln-/- cervices. Our findings demonstrate that relaxin alters AQP expression in the cervix and initiates changes in glycosaminoglycan composition through increased HA synthesis. These effects are likely mediated through RXFP1 localized to subepithelial stromal cells and epithelial cells. We suggest these actions of relaxin collectively promote water recruitment into the extracellular matrix to loosen the dense collagen fiber network.
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