Ovarian function in adult human and nonhuman primates is dependent on events that take place during fetal development, including the envelopment of oocytes by granulosa (i.e., folliculogenesis). However, our understanding of fetal ovarian folliculogenesis is incomplete. During baboon pregnancy, placental production and secretion of estradiol into the fetus increases with advancing gestation, and the fetal ovary expresses estrogen receptors α and β in mesenchymal-epithelial cells (i.e., pregranulosa) as early as midgestation. Therefore, the current study determined whether estrogen regulates fetal ovarian follicular development. Pregnant baboons were untreated or treated with the aromatase inhibitor CGS 20267, or with CGS 20267 plus estradiol benzoate administered s.c. to the mother on Days 100–164 (term = Day 184). On Day 165, baboon fetuses were delivered by cesarean section and the number of total follicles and interfollicular nests consisting of oocytes and mesenchymal-epithelial cells in areas (0.33 mm2) of the outer and inner cortices of each fetal ovary were quantified using image analysis. Maternal and umbilical serum estradiol levels were decreased by >95% with CGS 20267. Treatment with CGS 20267 and estrogen restored maternal estradiol to normal and fetal estradiol to 30% of normal. Although fetal ovarian weight was unaltered, the mean number of follicles ± SEM/0.33 mm2 in the inner (59.0 ± 1.7) and outer (95.3 ± 2.4) cortical regions of fetal ovaries in untreated animals was 35%–50% lower (P < 0.01) in estrogen-depleted baboons (25.9 ± 1.4, inner cortex; 62.5 ± 2.7, outer cortex) and was restored to normal by treatment with CGS 20267 and estrogen. In contrast, the number of interfollicular nests was 2-fold greater (P < 0.01) in fetal ovaries of estrogen-suppressed animals, a change that was prevented by treatment with estrogen. In summary, fetal ovarian follicular development was significantly altered in baboons in which estrogen was depleted during the second half of gestation and restored to normal by estradiol. We propose that estrogen plays an integral role in regulating, and perhaps programming, primate fetal ovarian development.
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