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Mol Cell Endocrinol. 2000 May 25;163(1-2):53-60.

The primordial to primary follicle transition.

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  • 1Department of Biomedical Sciences and Section of Physiology, College of Veterinary Medicine, T6-012B Veterinary Research Tower, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853, USA. jf11@cornell.edu


The mechanisms that regulate the gradual exit of ovarian follicles from the non-growing, primordial pool are very poorly understood. A better understanding of the signals that initiate follicular growth in mammals, and of the conditions necessary for sustained growth of early preantral follicles in vitro, could have practical implications for contraception, alleviation of infertility, and regulation of the rate of follicle depletion (menopause). Our laboratory has developed two experimental systems that can be used to study factors involved in the activation of primordial follicles. In the first experimental system, small pieces of ovarian cortex, containing mostly primordial follicles, are isolated from fetal ovaries of cattle or baboons and cultured in serum-free medium. Under these conditions most primordial follicles become activated between 12 and 24 h of culture; their granulosa cells change shape, from flattened to cuboidal, and begin to express proliferating cell nuclear antigen (PCNA). During 7 days in culture, the newly-formed primary follicles and their oocytes increase significantly in diameter. This wholesale 'spontaneous' activation in serum-free medium is quite different from the much more gradual exit of primordial follicles from the resting pool that occurs in vivo and suggests that primordial follicles in vivo may be subject to a tonic inhibition of growth initiation or, alternatively, that some aspect(s) of the environment in vitro stimulates growth initiation. Recently we developed a second experimental system for studying activation of primordial follicles. Pieces of ovarian cortex from bovine or baboon fetuses were grafted beneath the developing chorioallantoic membrane (CAM) of 6-day-old chick embryos, a site known to support xenografted tissues. The cortical pieces were rapidly vascularized and histological analysis of pieces recovered after 2, 4, 7, or 10 days 'in ovo' revealed no increase in the number of primary follicles and maintenance of original numbers of primordial follicles. Therefore, grafting ovarian cortical pieces beneath the chick CAM provides an experimental system in which follicles remain at the primordial stage in a readily accessible environment and which, thus, may be used to study potential regulators of the initiation of follicle growth. The results suggest that vascularization of isolated pieces of ovarian cortex provides conditions that maintain follicular quiescence, whereas culture in vitro allows unrestrained activation of primordial follicles. Future studies with and comparisons of the in vitro and in ovo models may provide new insight into the mechanisms that regulate the primordial to primary follicle transition.

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