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R. Webb

Summary. Treatment of ewes with a 3β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase (3β-HSD) inhibitor (Epostane) resulted in a significant increase in both ovulation rate and in the mean number of lambs per ewe lambing. The progestagen sponge plus 3β-HSD inhibitor treatment also caused a significant increase in oestrous cycle duration of approximately 1·5 days. Treatment of ewes with the 3β-HSD inhibitor caused a significant decrease in peripheral progesterone concentrations, which were reduced even further when 3β-HSD inhibitor treatment was given to ewes after insertion of a progestagen sponge. However, mean oestradiol concentrations were significantly higher in the two treatment groups, both at the end of the luteal phase and during the follicular phase of the oestrous cycle. These results demonstrate that ovulation rate and the production of lambs per ewe lambing can be significantly increased by 3β-HSD inhibitor treatment.

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DG Armstrong and R Webb

Folliculogenesis is associated with the development of a group of follicles at various stages of maturation from which a species-specific number of follicles are selected for continued growth. These selected follicles, after being exposed to the requisite hormonal environment, ovulate in response to the preovulatory gonadotrophin surge. Follicular dominance is the mechanism by which the selected follicle(s) undergoes rapid development in an environment where growth and development of other follicles, recruited at a similar time, are suppressed. These processes are controlled by the interaction of endocrine signals and locally produced ovarian growth factors. The response of the two major follicular cell types, granulosa and theca cells, to gonadotrophins is regulated by the local production of growth factors. Mechanisms controlling growth factor action occupy a central role in the regulation of folliculogenesis. In this review, we highlight the influence of the extracellular matrix in this process by describing its involvement in regulating the activity of components of the insulin-like growth factor system, transforming growth factor beta superfamily, fibroblast growth factors and the epidermal growth factor/transforming growth factor alpha family. In addition, some recent studies on the role of protein factors produced by the dominant follicle in maintaining dominance and inhibiting the growth of subordinate follicles are described.

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C. A. Price and R. Webb

Summary. The aims of this study were to investigate whether treatment with a single ovulatory dose of hCG, between the day of oestrus and the end of the luteal phase, could induce extra ovulations in heifers and whether the presence of an existing corpus luteum (CL) affected the response. Heifers (N = 32) were injected with 1500 i.u. hCG or saline on a given day of the oestrous cycle. Treatments were repeated during subsequent cycles to provide a total of 71 observations, 57 of which followed an injection of hCG, given between Day 0 (oestrus) and Day 16, and 14 of which followed saline injections as controls. Ovulatory responses were noted by laparoscopy 2 days after hCG treatment. No heifers injected with saline produced additional CL. Of the hCG-treated cycles, 23 resulted in the formation of an additional CL, and this was significantly affected by the stage of the oestrous cycle when hCG was given; a greater response was observed during the early (Days 4–7) and late (Days 14–16) stages of the luteal phase than at the mid-luteal phase of the oestrous cycle. Two heifers were also treated with hCG on Days 17 or 18 of the oestrous cycle, but before oestrus; both had induced CL. There were no significant differences between the left–right orientation of the existing CL or the hCG-induced CL.

These results demonstrate that the large, luteal-phase follicle of the cow is capable of ovulating in response to hCG and that the induced CL is not affected by the presence of an existing CL.

Keywords: cattle; ovulation; hCG; follicle; luteal phase

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R. Webb and B. G. England

Summary. Ewes were ovariectomized before (Group 1, N = 5) or after (Group 2, N = 6) the peak of the preovulatory gonadotrophin surge. Ovarian secretion rates of oestradiol and testosterone were significantly higher in Group 1 than in Group 2. The presence of high levels of LH receptors in both thecal and granulosa cells was used to identify ovulatory from non-ovulatory follicles. There was a significant fall in the LH receptor concentration in the thecal and granulosa cells of ovulatory follicles after the peak of the preovulatory gonadotrophin surge. Ovulatory follicles in Group 1 produced significantly more oestradiol and testosterone in vitro than did those in Group 2. In both groups ovulatory follicles secreted significantly more oestradiol in vitro than did non-ovulatory follicles. Follicular fluid oestradiol concentrations were similar in pattern to the in-vitro oestradiol secretion activity in ovulatory and non-ovulatory follicles. However, follicular fluid testosterone concentrations were significantly higher in non-ovulatory follicles than in ovulatory follicles. Incubation of follicles with 250 ng testosterone/ml did not significantly alter the in-vitro oestradiol secretion rate in any of the groups of follicles except for Group 2 non-ovulatory follicles in which oestradiol accumulation increased. The number of thecal and granulosa cell LH receptors was significantly correlated with follicular fluid oestradiol concentrations in ovulatory follicles and with in-vitro oestradiol production by Group 1 ovulatory follicles. It is suggested that the fall in oestradiol secretion rates, which occurs after the peak of the preovulatory gonadotrophin surge, may be due to a decrease of aromatase activity associated with a fall in the concentration of LH receptors and is not due to a lack of the oestrogen precursor testosterone. The elevated concentration of testosterone and low oestradiol concentrations in non-ovulatory follicles compared with ovulatory follicles are probably due to an inactive aromatase system, perhaps associated with the lack of granulosa cell LH receptors.

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M. A. Driancourt, R. Webb and R. C. Fry

Summary. The process by which a single follicle is selected to ovulate while others regress is unknown in ewes. If the dominant follicle secretes substances that directly inhibit the growth of other follicles, the superovulatory response to the administration of exogenous gonadotrophins may be blunted. Administration of 1250 iu pregnant mares' serum gonadotrophin (PMSG) before or after the emergence of the dominant follicle in the follicular phase, or 1000 iu PMSG in the presence or absence of a large healthy or atretic follicle during the luteal phase did not affect the induced ovulatory response. Comparisons between the ovary with or without the dominant follicle did not reveal any differences in ovulatory response to PMSG. The in-vitro features (i.e. mitotic index, oestradiol and testosterone production) of follicles ipsilateral or contralateral to the dominant follicle during the early and late follicular phases were also similar.

If the dominant follicle secretes substances detrimental to the other follicles, this could be mimicked in vitro. Co-culture of small follicles with the largest follicles in a closed system did not reduce their incorporation of 3H thymidine in granulosa cells, compared with small follicles cultured alone.

These data suggest that dominance is probably not operative in sheep. The administration of 500 iu of PMSG during the midfollicular phase increased ovulation rate in Merino ewes, indicating that dominance is essentially passive in ewes and can easily be overcome by raising gonadotrophin concentration.

Keywords: follicle; ovulation; gonadotrophin; paracrine regulation; sheep

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B. K. Campbell, R. J. Scaramuzzi and R. Webb

A serum-free ovine granulosa cell culture system is described that allows the induction of FSH-responsive oestradiol production by undifferentiated cells from small (< 3.5 mm) follicles (P < 0.001) and the maintenance of oestradiol production by differentiated cells from large (≥3.5 mm) follicles. Physiological doses of FSH stimulated (P < 0.01) proliferation of cultured granulosa cells from both small and large follicles. The synthesis of immunoreactive inhibin and progesterone by granulosa cells from small and large follicles increased (P < 0.01) with time of culture, and was not dependent on FSH. Inhibin secretion expressed on a per cell basis was not FSH responsive. Insulin and insulin-like growth factor I (IGF-I), in the presence of FSH, stimulated (P < 0.001) cell proliferation and oestradiol and inhibin production by granulosa cells from small and large follicles. There was a significant (P < 0.001) interaction between insulin and IGF-I in the stimulation of granulosa cell proliferation and differentiation. Both epidermal growth factor (EGF) and transforming growth factor α (TGF-α) in the presence of FSH stimulated cellular proliferation (P < 0.001) in a dose-responsive manner and concomitantly inhibited (P < 0.001) oestradiol and inhibin secretion. The development of this granulosa cell culture system will make it possible to study, in vitro, the cascade of events that controls granulosa cell differentiation and ultimately follicle selection in sheep.

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R. G. Gosden, M. I. Boulton, K. Grant and R. Webb

Cortical slices of either cat or sheep ovaries were grafted under the renal capsules of ovariectomized SCID mice. The grafts became vascularized and were still surviving with large follicles present at autopsy up to nine months later. As developing follicles undergo atresia during the period of ischaemia after ovarian grafting, those found in long-term grafts at autopsy had presumably started to grow from the primordial stage after transplantation. Some follicles had reached a diameter of 3 mm with a normal antrum and appeared to be cytologically normal, but the latent period for the emergence of antral follicles was shorter in cat compared with sheep grafts. Oestradiol production from grafts, as indicated by vaginal cornification and plasma measurements collected at autopsy, was not constant and circulating concentrations varied among animals, and were sometimes far in excess of the normal physiological range of the host. The vaginal smears never presented cytological patterns like those of the normal mouse oestrous cycle, and ovulation had not occurred in any of the grafts. These results demonstrate that ovarian xenografts in SCID mice can serve as experimental models for investigating follicle development in species in which follicle growth in vitro and studies of the parent animal are impracticable.

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B. K. Campbell, D. T. Baird and R. Webb

The study reports the development of a serum-free culture system for sheep thecal cells that overcomes the problem of spontaneous luteinization and the use of this system to study the control of proliferation and differentiation. Theca cells were isolated by enzymatic dispersion from small follicles (< 3.5 mm) and the effect of plating densities (25–100 × 103 cells per well), LH (0.001–100 μg l−1), insulin (1–5000 μg l−1), insulin-like growth factor I (IGF-I) analogue (1–100 μg LR3-IGF-Il−1) and epidermal growth factor (EGF) (0.005–50 μg l−1) on the number of cells and androstenedione and progesterone production were determined. Plating density had a marked effect on the pattern of hormone secretion with densities between 50 and 75 × 103 cells per well resulting in a high androstenedione: progesterone ratio at optimum doses of LH (0.1 μg l−1: P < 0.001). In the first 48 h, the production of both androstenedione and progesterone was stimulated in a dose-dependent manner by LH (P < 0.001). However, the production of androstenedione was ten times higher than that of progesterone and was more sensitive to LH (ED50 value 0.08 μg l−1 for androstenedione and 1 μg l−1 for progesterone). From 48–144 h of culture higher doses of LH (> 1 ng ml−1) inhibited androstenedione (P < 0.001) and stimulated progesterone (P < 0.001) and resulted in a marked change in cell morphology, thus reflecting both functional and morphological luteinization. At optimum doses of LH, both insulin and IGF stimulated cell proliferation (P < 0.001) and androstenedione production (P < 0.001) in a dose responsive manner and there was a significant (P < 0.001) interaction between them. In contrast, both insulin and IGF-I inhibited (P < 0.001) progesterone production in a dose responsive manner. EGF stimulated cell proliferation (P < 0.001) and progesterone production (P < 0.001), but inhibited androstenedione production (P < 0.001), in a dose responsive manner. In conclusion, this culture system exhibits physiologically relevant responses to known in vivo modulators of follicle development. The biphasic nature of the theca cell response to LH emphasises the exquisite sensitivity of theca cells to LH stimulation and highlights the importance of dose–response relationships in the gonadotrophic control of ovarian function.

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P. I. Webb, J. R. Speakman and P. A. Racey

Summary. Oxygen consumption and evaporation were measured in a single pregnant pipistrelle bat during labour and parturition of twins, using an open-flow respirometry system. During 233 min of measurements, three distinct phases were noted, which we suggest represent prelabour, labour and grooming or suckling the young.

On the basis of this hypothesis, during labour and parturition, oxygen consumption was a maximum of 8·9% of daily energy expenditure, evaporation was 2·7% of daily water turnover, and total water loss was 5·5% of daily water turnover in free-living bats in early lactation.

We estimated that, for the mother and young combined, oxygen consumption associated with grooming and suckling would be equivalent to 37·5% of daily energy expenditure of the mother, if carried out continuously. Similarly, evaporation due to grooming and suckling would be equivalent to 16·4% of daily water turnover.

In terms of daily energy expenditure and daily water turnover, labour and parturition are therefore cheap, but grooming and suckling (even ignoring costs in terms of losses in the milk) are expensive.

Keywords: bat; labour; parturition; oxygen consumption; evaporation

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JG Gong, WJ Lee, PC Garnsworthy and R Webb

Although it has become increasingly clear that fertility in modern dairy cattle is declining in association with increased milk yields, the underlying mechanism is poorly understood. The first ovulation post partum is delayed in dairy cows undergoing selection for genetic merit for milk yield in association with lower circulating insulin concentrations. The aim of this study was to investigate whether feeding a diet to increase circulating insulin concentrations can overcome this delay in the first ovulation post partum. The experiment was a 2 x 2 factorial design (n = 10 per group) involving diet and genetic merit for milk yield. The dietary treatment started on the day of calving and lasted for 50 days. Plasma samples were collected each day and ovarian ultra-sonography was performed three times a week during the experimental feeding period. Milk yield was recorded each day, and body weight and body condition score were determined each week. Milk samples were collected three times a week from day 50 to day 105 post partum, and reproductive performance data were recorded for all the cows as part of the routine farm practice. The dietary treatment induced significant differences in plasma insulin concentrations in both high and low genetic merit cows. Although high genetic merit cows produced more milk, lost more body weight and had lower body condition scores during the experiment, no significant effect of diet was observed on these measurements. The high insulin inducing diet increased the proportion of cows ovulating within 50 days of calving and reduced the intervals from calving to first ovulation, and tended to reduce the intervals from calving to first service and to conception. These fertility parameters were also more favourable in low than in high genetic merit cows, but no interaction between diet and genetic merit was observed for any of these parameters. Genetic merit, but not diet, also affected the number of services required per conception and the conception rate. In conclusion, these results have confirmed that genetic selection for high milk yield is associated with a decrease in reproductive performance in dairy cows. More importantly, this study has demonstrated that it is possible to alleviate this problem by nutritional manipulation.