The present study was designed to 1) investigate whether apoptosis is responsible for the atresia of nonovulatory dominant follicle (DF), 2) to determine if atresia of a nonovulatory DF is associated with alterations in Bcl-2 and Bax expression, 3) to test whether progesterone P4 has a direct effect on apoptosis in bovine follicles, and 4) to study the pattern of expression of Bcl-2 and Bax in follicles at different developmental stages (small, medium, and large). In experiment 1, 16 cycling cows received a norgestomet ear implant at proestrus (Day 1) for 9 days to mimic the subluteal phase. The cows were assigned either to a control (n = 4) or P4-treated groups (n = 12). Injections of P4 (150 mg, i.m.) were given on Day 3 (n = 4); on Days 3 and 4 (n = 4), and on Days 3, 4, and 5 (n = 4) of the implant period. Controls received injections of corn oil on Days 3, 4, and 5. Unilateral ovariectomy was performed on Days 4, 5, and 6 to recover DFs from cows that had been treated with P4 for 24, 48, and 72 h, respectively. DFs in the control group were collected on Day 6. The onset of atresia of DFs was assessed morphologically by ultrasound to determine DF diameters, histologically by light microscopic inspection of tissue sections, and functionally by quantification of follicular fluid steroid hormone levels. Apoptosis was detected by DNA analysis and in situ TUNEL labeling. Expression of Bcl-2 and Bax proteins was examined by Western blot analysis. The earliest signs of atresia were detected 24 h after P4 injection as evidenced by decreased diameter, degeneration and detachment of granulosa cells (GCs) from the basal lamina, and a dramatically reduced ratio of estrogen to P4. Electrophoretic analysis of DNA extracted from DFs of cows treated with P4 for 24 h revealed a distinct ladder pattern of DNA fragments. In contrast, this pattern was not obvious in DFs from control cows. Similar results were also obtained from TUNEL analysis of DFs. Furthermore, both Bcl-2 and Bax were found to be present in all DFs; however, the ratio of Bcl-2 and Bax protein levels was significantly reduced by 24 h of P4 treatment compared with DFs from the control group (P < 0.05). Experiment 2 investigated the direct effect of P4 (4 ng/ml) on apoptosis of cultured GCs using ovaries obtained from a local slaughterhouse. In addition, the pattern of expressions of Bcl-2 and Bax in follicles at different developmental stages (small, medium, and large) was studied. No increase in apoptotic DNA fragments was detected in GCs treated with P4. The ratio of Bcl-2 and Bax protein levels was variable in small follicles; however, Bax protein level was always relatively higher than that of Bcl-2 in medium and large follicles. In conclusion, our study suggests that apoptosis is the mechanism that underlies the atresia of nonovulatory DFs that develops during the luteal phase of bovine estrous cycle.
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