During ovarian folliculogenesis, ascorbic acid may be involved in collagen biosynthesis, steroidogenesis and apoptosis. The aims of this study were to determine the effects of ascorbic acid on bovine follicle development in vitro. Preantral follicles were cultured for 12 days in serum-free medium containing ascorbic acid (50 microg ml(-1)). Half of the medium was replaced every 2 days, and conditioned medium was analysed for oestradiol and matrix metalloproteinase 2 (MMP-2) and MMP-9 secretion. On day 12, cell death was assessed by TdT-mediated dUTP-biotin nick end labelling (TUNEL). In the absence of serum, there was significant (P < 0.05) follicle growth and oestradiol secretion over the 12 day culture period. Ascorbic acid had no effect on these parameters. The addition of serum from day 0 stimulated follicle growth (P < 0.05), but compromised follicle integrity. By day 12 of culture, a higher proportion of follicles remained intact in the presence of ascorbic acid in serum-free conditions (P < 0.05), and significantly (P < 0.01) less granulosa and theca cell death was observed in these follicles than in control follicles. Moreover, ascorbic acid significantly (P < 0.05) increased production of MMP-9, an enzyme involved in basement membrane remodelling. In conclusion, this culture system was capable of supporting follicle differentiation over the 12 day culture period. Furthermore, ascorbic acid maintains bovine follicle health and basement membrane remodelling in vitro.