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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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P Da Silva, RP Aitken, SM Rhind, PA Racey and JM Wallace

The onset of puberty in prenatally growth-restricted versus normally grown lambs of both sexes, born in April and housed under natural photoperiod, was examined. Singleton pregnancies were established and adolescent ewes were offered a high or moderate nutrient intake throughout gestation. Placental mass was reduced (P < 0.001) in high compared with moderate intake dams and resulted in the birth of growth-restricted and normal birth weight offspring, respectively. At birth, female lambs weighed 3.43 kg versus 5.03 kg (P < 0.001; n = 14 per group) and male lambs weighed 2.75 kg versus 5.18 kg (P < 0.001; n = 7 per group) in growth-restricted and normal birth weight groups, respectively. Lambs suckled for 12 weeks and thereafter were fed ad libitum until week 43 of age. Growth-restricted lambs had lower preweaning live weight gains and this difference was more pronounced in male (P < 0.05) than in female lambs (P = 0.07). Thereafter, live weight remained lower (P < 0.05) in growth-restricted than in normally grown lambs of both sexes until week 25 of age. In females, the time of onset of puberty was similar in the two groups. All females ovulated and there were no differences in the number of ovarian cycles recorded or in the incidence of aberrant ovarian function. In males, testosterone concentrations and testicular volume were lower in growth-restricted compared with normally developed lambs from birth until weeks 28 and 35 of age, respectively (P < 0.05). The seasonal increase in plasma testosterone concentrations occurred later in growth-restricted than in normally developed lambs (P < 0.01) but the timing of maximum peak concentrations was similar. Peak testosterone concentrations were lower (P < 0.05) in growth-restricted than in normal male lambs.

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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.

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P Da Silva, RP Aitken, SM Rhind, PA Racey and JM Wallace

The influence of maternal nutrition during pregnancy on anterior pituitary gonadotrophin gene expression and ovarian development in sheep fetuses during late gestation was investigated. Embryos recovered from superovulated adult ewes that had been inseminated by a single sire were transferred, singly, into the uteri of adolescent recipients. After embryo transfer, adolescent ewes were offered a high or moderate amount of a complete diet. Pregnancies were terminated at day 131 +/- 0.6 of gestation and the fetal brain, anterior pituitary gland and gonads were collected. Gonadotrophin gene expression (LHbeta and FSHbeta subunits) in the fetal pituitary gland was examined using in situ hybridization. Ovarian follicular development was quantified in haematoxylin- and eosin-stained ovarian sections embedded in paraffin wax. Six dams that were offered a high nutrient intake carried normal-sized fetuses (weight within +/- 2 SD of mean weight for control fetuses from dams fed a moderate level of complete diet) and 13 dams carried growth-restricted fetuses (weight +/- 2 SD of mean weight for control fetuses from dams fed a moderate level of complete diet). Mean placental masses in these groups were 354 +/- 24.5 and 230 +/- 21.1 g, respectively, compared with 442 +/- 54.3 g in the dams that were offered a moderate nutrient intake (n = 6). Growth-restricted fetuses from dams offered a high nutrient intake showed higher pituitary LHbeta mRNA expression (P < 0.05) than normal-sized fetuses from dams offered a moderate nutrient intake (252 +/- 21.6 and 172 +/- 23.6 nCi g(-1), respectively). FSHbeta mRNA expression was not influenced by growth status. Fewer follicles (primarily in the resting pool) were observed in the ovaries of both growth-restricted (P < 0.002) and normal-sized fetuses from dams offered a high nutrient intake (P < 0.01) compared with normal-sized fetuses from dams offered a moderate nutrient intake. Irrespective of nutritional treatment, the total number of follicles was positively associated with placental mass (P < 0.01). Thus, a high maternal nutrient intake during adolescent pregnancy had a negative influence on ovarian follicular development in fetuses as determined during late gestation.

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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.