We evaluated the involvement of the in vivo hormonal environment on the ability of the rat corpus luteum (CL) to undergo apoptosis. Gel electrophoretic DNA fragmentation analysis revealed no apoptosis in CL isolated either the 2 last days of pregnancy (Days 21 and 22) or throughout the 4 days following parturition, suggesting that the number of cells undergoing apoptosis at the same time is not sufficient to allow for visualization of DNA breakdown. In contrast, CL incubated in serum-free medium underwent significant apoptosis, as evaluated by chromatin condensation and DNA fragmentation, regardless of their developmental stage in pregnancy. However, CL obtained on Day 7 of pregnancy and on Day 4 postpartum demonstrated higher sensitivity to apoptosis in vitro, but lactation reduced significantly the capacity of the CL to undergo apoptosis when maintained in culture. These data suggest that the exposure of the CL to different hormonal environments throughout pregnancy and after parturition is responsible for the differential susceptibility to apoptosis observed in vitro. We have previously shown that progesterone is a direct factor for survival of the CL. Prolactin stimulates luteal progesterone production; therefore, we examined whether prolactin prevents apoptosis in luteal cells independently of its stimulatory action on progesterone production. We used a luteal cell line (GG-CL) that expresses the prolactin receptor but does not produce progesterone. These cells undergo apoptosis under conditions of serum starvation, and addition of prolactin to the culture medium significantly reduced DNA fragmentation. These results indicate that the extent of luteal cell death induced by incubation of CL under serum-free conditions depends on the hormonal environment to which this endocrine gland is exposed in vivo. These results also indicate an important role for lactation in preventing apoptosis, which is further supported by the antiapoptotic activity of prolactin observed in luteal cells.
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