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SM Rhind, MT Rae and AN Brooks

Research from a wide range of scientific disciplines has shown that the reproductive performance of animals in adult life is determined, in part, by a variety of extraneous influences acting at different stages of development from before conception until after birth. These effects are probably mediated through changes in the hypothalamic-pituitary and gonadal axes but the physiological system that is affected depends on the stage of development at which the influence is applied. The physiological mechanisms through which environmental influences are transmitted to the target organs are, in many cases, complex and poorly understood. Gonadotrophins seem to play a pivotal role in the development of the fetal testis, although effects of environmental influences on GnRH secretion have yet to be demonstrated. Other studies have shown that, at earlier stages of fetal development, the normal ontogeny of gonadal development and function can be disrupted by undernutrition or the influence of endocrine-disrupting compounds. Specifically, in female fetuses, the onset of meiosis is delayed, whereas, in male fetuses, testosterone synthesis is increased as a result of enhanced testicular steroidogenic enzyme activity. Although reproductive performance is clearly influenced by prenatal factors, much further work is required to identify the relationships between developmental abnormalities and adult reproductive function. Work is also required to elucidate further the critical windows in development and the mechanisms by which environmental factors affect the reproductive organs of developing offspring.

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MT Rae, SM Rhind, PA Fowler, DW Miller, CE Kyle and AN Brooks

The aim of this study was to determine the effects of maternal undernutrition, applied during physiologically relevant stages of development of the reproductive system, on reproductive development in male sheep fetuses. Groups of ewes (n = 11-19) were fed rations providing either 100% (high; H) or 50% (low; L) of metabolizable energy requirements for live weight maintenance during selected 'windows', bounded by days 0, 30, 50, 65 and 110 after mating. Ewes of control groups (HH (Expts 1 and 2) and HHH (Expt 3)) were fed the H ration from mating until they were killed at day 50 (Expt 1), day 65 (Expt 2) or day 110 (Expt 3) of gestation, whereas ewes of other groups were fed the L ration for the periods days 0-30 of gestation (LH and LHH), days 31-50 or days 31-65 of gestation (HL and HLH), days 65-110 of gestation (HHL), or day 0 to day 50, day 65 or day 110 of gestation (LL and LLL) when the animals were killed. At day 50 of gestation, there was no effect of nutritional treatment on mean fetal mass or fetal testicular mass, but there was increased expression of mRNA for steroidogenic acute regulatory protein (StAR) in the testes of LL animals (P < 0.05) compared with HH controls. Compared with HH animals, the mean plasma testosterone concentrations of LL fetuses tended to be higher, but this result did not reach significance. At day 65 of gestation there were no significant differences between treatments in mean fetal masses, testicular masses, mean plasma testosterone concentrations or StAR mRNA content. At day 110 of gestation, fetal masses in the LLL group were lower (P < 0.01) than those of control fetuses, although no differences in testicular size or fetal plasma testosterone concentrations were recorded. It is concluded that the effects of undernutrition on reproductive development of male sheep fetuses are dependent on the timing of the period of undernutrition.

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SC Riley, R Leask, JV Selkirk, RW Kelly, AN Brooks and DC Howe

Type 1 NAD(+)-dependent 15-hydroxyprostaglandin dehydrogenase (PGDH) is the key enzyme for metabolism of active primary prostaglandins to inactive forms in gestational tissues. The present study examined the activity and immunolocalization of PGDH in the ovine placenta, fetal membranes and uterus over the latter half of pregnancy, and its potential regulation by oestradiol. Placenta, fetal membranes and myometrium were collected from sheep with known single insemination dates on days 70, 100 and 135 of gestation and in active labour demonstrated by electromyographic activity. In addition, chronically catheterized fetuses were infused with oestradiol (100 microgram kg(-1) per 24 h) (n = 5) or saline vehicle into the fetus from day 120 to day 125. PGDH activity measured in placental extracts remained constant from day 70 to day 135 of gestation, and then significantly (P < 0.05) increased by 300% in active labour. Immunoreactive PGDH was localized in the placentome at all stages and was present predominantly in the fetal component of the placentome in uninucleate, but not in binucleate, trophoblast cells. Similarly, in the fetal membranes PGDH immuno-reactivity was present in the uninucleate trophoblast but not in the binucleate cells of the chorion. PGDH immunostaining was also present in the endometrial luminal epithelium, in the smooth muscle of the myometrium, and the glandular epithelium of the cervix. Infusion of oestradiol into the fetal circulation from day 120 to day 125 of gestation had no effect on placental PGDH activity. Immunohistochemistry was used to localize oestrogen receptor alpha in intrauterine tissues to investigate further the failure of oestradiol to increase PGDH activity. Immunoreactive oestrogen receptor alpha was not present in the fetal component of the placenta, although it was expressed in adjacent maternal-derived cells. It is concluded that (1) PGDH activity increases in late gestation; (2) PGDH is expressed in uninucleate trophoblast cells in the ovine placenta and fetal membranes, and also in the maternal endometrial epithelium and stroma, myometrium and cervix; (3) oestrogen receptor alpha is not expressed in fetal cells in the placenta or fetal membranes; and (4) the increase in PGDH activity is not regulated by oestradiol administered to the fetus.

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MT Rae, S Palassio, CE Kyle, AN Brooks, RG Lea, DW Miller and SM Rhind

Gonad development in female sheep fetuses is thought to occur in a number of key stages. The aim of this study was to determine the effects of maternal undernutrition, applied at one or more of these critical stages, on fetal ovarian development. Groups of ewes (n = 11-19) were fed rations providing either 100% (high; H) or 50% (low; L) of energy requirements for live weight maintenance during selected 'windows' during gestation. Control ewes (HH and HHH) were fed the H ration from mating until they were killed at days 50, 65 (HH) or 110 (HHH) of gestation, whereas ewes of other groups were fed the L ration for the periods between day 0 and day 30 of gestation (LH and LHH), day 31 and day 50 or 65 of gestation (HL and HLH), day 65 and day 110 of gestation (HHL) or day 0 of gestation until the animals were killed (LL and LLL). At day 50 of gestation, there was no effect of nutritional treatment on mean fetal mass but compared with HH animals, mean fetal ovarian mass was significantly lower in HL (P < 0.05) and LL (P < 0.001) animals. At day 65 of gestation, there were significantly fewer germ cells (P < 0.05) at the resting, diplotene stage of initial meiosis in LL animals than there were in HH animals, indicating delayed germ cell maturation and onset of meiosis. Qualitative assessment of proliferative cell nuclear antigen immunostaining indicated that, at day 50 of gestation, staining was located predominantly in the germ cells, whereas by day 65 of gestation, staining was confined predominantly to somatic cells. Undernutrition in each one of these windows was associated with delayed ovarian follicular development (P < 0.05-0.001) as measured by development of the granulosa cell layer at day 110 of gestation. This study demonstrates that undernutrition before and during folliculogenesis can delay fetal follicular development.