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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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AE Michael, LM Thurston and MT Rae

Within potential target cells, the actions of physiological glucocorticoids (cortisol and corticosterone) are modulated by isoforms of the enzyme 11 beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase (11 beta HSD). To date, two isoforms of 11 beta HSD have been cloned: 11 beta HSD1 acts predominantly as an NADP(H)-dependent reductase to generate active cortisol or corticosterone, and 11 beta HSD2 is a high affinity NAD(+)-dependent enzyme that catalyses the enzymatic inactivation of glucocorticoids. Whereas the regeneration of active glucocorticoids by 11 beta HSD1 has been implicated in the cellular mechanisms of pituitary function, ovulation and parturition, the enzymatic inactivation of cortisol and corticosterone by 11 beta HSD enzymes appears to be central to the protection of gonadal steroidogenesis, prevention of intra-uterine growth retardation, and lactation. Recent evidence indicates that follicular fluid contains endogenous modulators of cortisol metabolism by 11 beta HSD1, the concentrations of which are associated with the clinical outcome of assisted conception cycles and are altered in cystic ovarian disease. In conclusion, the two cloned isoforms of 11 beta HSD fulfil diverse roles in a wide range of reproductive processes from conception to lactation.

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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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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.