Bovine ovarian antral follicles exhibit either one or the other of two patterns of granulosa cell death in atresia. Death can commence either from the antrum and progress toward the basal lamina (antral atresia) or the converse (basal atresia). In basal atresia, the remaining live antrally situated cells appeared to continue maturing. Beyond that, little is known about these distinct patterns of atresia. Healthy (nonatretic) follicles also exhibit either one or the other of two patterns of granulosa cell shape, follicular basal lamina ultrastructure or location of younger cells within the membrana granulosa. To examine these different phenotypes, the expression of the steroidogenic enzymes cholesterol side-chain cleavage cytochrome P450 (SCC) and 3β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase (3β-HSD) in granulosa cells and concentrations of steroid hormones in follicular fluid were measured in individual histologically classified bovine antral follicles. Healthy follicles first expressed SCC and 3β-HSD in granulosa cells only when the follicles reached an approximate threshold of 10 mm in diameter. The pattern of expression in antral atretic follicles was the same as healthy follicles. Basal atretic follicles were all <5 mm. In these, the surviving antral granulosa cells expressed SCC and 3β-HSD. In examining follicles of 3–5 mm, basal atretic follicles were found to have substantially elevated progesterone (P < 0.001) and decreased androstenedione and testosterone compared to healthy and antral atretic follicles. Estradiol was highest in the large healthy follicles, lower in the small healthy follicles, lower still in the antral atretic follicles, and lowest in the basal atretic follicles. Our findings have two major implications. First, the traditional method of identifying atretic follicles by measurement of steroid hormone concentrations may be less valid with small bovine follicles. Second, features of the two forms of follicular atresia are so different as to imply different mechanisms of initiation and regulation.
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