Relaxin-like factor (RLF) is a new member of the insulin-relaxin gene family known to be expressed in the ovarian follicular thecal cells of ruminants. To investigate the pattern of RLF expression in development and atresia of bovine follicles, antisera were raised in rats and rabbits to recombinantly expressed bovine pro-RLF and to chemically synthesized ovine RLF B chain, respectively. On dot blotting analysis, the rat anitserum bound to pro-RLF and less strongly to a synthetic mature ovine RLF lacking the C-domain, whereas the rabbit antiserum bound the mature form of ovine RLF. These antisera were used to immunostain bovine ovarian follicles of differing sizes and stages of health and atresia. 3β-Hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase was colocalized with pro-RLF (n = 86 follicles), and cholesterol side-chain cleavage cytochrome P450 was localized in another section of many of the same follicles (n = 66). Not all follicles expressed pro-RLF in the theca interna, so the results are presented as the proportion of follicles expressing pro-RLF. Both mature and pro-RLF were immunolocalized to steroidogenic thecal cells of healthy follicles. As follicles enlarged to >5 mm, the proportion expressing pro-RLF declined (19/19 for <5 mm and 18/26 for >6 mm). Atresia was divided into antral (antral granulosa cells dying first) or basal (basal cells dying first) and further divided into early, middle, and late. For antral atresia of small follicles (2–5 mm), no decline in the proportion expressing pro-RLF was observed (early 6/6, middle 2/2) until the late stages (1/4). For basal atresia, which only occurs in small follicles (2–5 mm), the proportion expressing pro-RLF declined in the middle (2/5) and late (0/8) stages. In larger follicles (>6 to <10 mm), the proportion expressing pro-RLF also declined with atresia (1/13). These declines in RLF expression with atresia or increasing size were not accompanied by a decline in the expression of steroidogenic enzymes in the theca interna. A significant (P < 0.001) inverse relationship in the expression of pro-RLF and 3β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase in the membrana granulosa was observed. We conclude that the expression of pro-RLF in the theca interna is switched off as follicles enlarge or enter atresia, whereas the expression of steroidogenic enzymes is maintained in the theca interna.
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