The purpose of this study was to determine whether regression of the decidua basalis (DB), which begins on Day 14 of pregnancy in the rat, results from an intrinsic program of apoptosis regulated by Bax and Bcl2. Expression of Bax and Bcl2 and the incidence of apoptosis were evaluated throughout gestation by Western blot analysis and detection of DNA fragments. Antiprogestin (RU486) was also administered during proliferation of DB to study progesterone regulation of Bax/Bcl2 balance. Bax, the pro-apoptotic protein, was expressed at a low level throughout pregnancy, whereas Bcl2, the pro-survival partner, was most abundantly expressed on Days 8 and 10, which are a time of proliferation and decidualization, and declined to barely detectable levels thereafter. These changes resulted in a 12-fold increase in the Bax:Bcl2 ratio on Day 17 as compared with Day 8 of pregnancy (P < 0.05). DNA laddering and in situ staining of DNA fragments first became visible on Day 14 and involved 2% of cells by Days 17 and 21 (P < 0.05). Treatment with RU486 on Day 9 enhanced Bax and suppressed Bcl2 within 6 h, increasing the Bax:Bcl2 ratio sixfold (P < 0.05). Apoptosis was minimal at 6 h and increased to 9% of cells by 24 h (P < 0.05). Thus, progesterone appears to regulate the apoptotic threshold of stromal cells by modulating Bax and Bcl2 expression.
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