Proper functioning of the ovary is critical to maintain fertility and overall health, and ovarian function depends on the maintenance and normal development of ovarian follicles. This review presents evidence about the potential impact of oxidative stress on the well-being of primordial, growing and preovulatory follicles, as well as oocytes and early embryos, examining cell types and molecular targets. Limited data from genetically modified mouse models suggest that several antioxidant enzymes that protect cells from reactive oxygen species (ROS) may play important roles in follicular development and/or survival. Exposures to agents known to cause oxidative stress, such as gamma irradiation, chemotherapeutic drugs, or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, induce rapid primordial follicle loss; however, the mechanistic role of ROS has received limited attention. In contrast, ROS may play an important role in the initiation of apoptosis in antral follicles. Depletion of glutathione leads to atresia of antral follicles in vivo and apoptosis of granulosa cells in cultured antral follicles. Chemicals, such as cyclophosphamide, dimethylbenzanthracene, and methoxychlor, increase proapoptotic signals, preceded by increased ROS and signs of oxidative stress, and cotreatment with antioxidants is protective. In oocytes, glutathione levels change rapidly during progression of meiosis and early embryonic development, and high oocyte glutathione at the time of fertilization is required for male pronucleus formation and for embryonic development to the blastocyst stage. Because current evidence suggests that oxidative stress can have significant negative impacts on female fertility and gamete health, dietary or pharmacological intervention may prove to be effective strategies to protect female fertility.
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Vol. 86 • No. 2