Thirty-four-week-old laying hens received injections of recombinant chicken leptin to assess the role of leptin in avian ovarian function. In the first experiment, the hens (n=60) were divided into three groups: (i). fed ad libitum; (ii). fasted; and (iii). fasted + leptin. Hens were fasted for 5 days and those treated with leptin received 250 microg leptin kg-1 body weight twice a day, i.p. In the second experiment, the hens (n=72) were divided into four groups: (i). fed ad libitum; (ii). fasted; (iii). fasted + leptin given only during fasting (5 days); or (iv). fasted and leptin given during both fasting and 5 days of re-feeding (10 days). LH was measured in blood plasma, and progesterone and oestradiol were measured in blood plasma and the ovary by radioimmunoassay. Apoptosis was examined in the walls of the three largest yellow hierarchical follicles (F3-F1; F3 25-35 mm) by the TdT-mediated dUTP nick-end labelling method. Results showed that the injections of leptin during fasting: (i). delayed cessation of egg laying; (ii). attenuated regression of yellow hierarchical follicles; (iii). altered ovarian steroidogenesis; and (iv). abolished the fasting-induced apoptosis in the wall of F3-F1 follicles during the first 2 days of fasting and partially attenuated apoptosis after 5 days of fasting. Prolongation of leptin injections into the re-feeding period considerably delayed the restoration of the ovary. Expression of leptin receptor in laying hens was determined by RT-PCR. The highest expression of leptin receptor was observed in the hypothalamus. Lower receptor mRNA expression was found in the hypophysis, whereas the lowest expression was observed in the ovary. Within the ovary, a relatively high expression of leptin receptor was found in the stroma with cortical follicles <1 mm, the wall of white (1-8 mm) and small yellow follicles (>8-12 mm), and the granulosa layer of F3 follicles. The expression of leptin receptor in the granulosa layer of F2 and F1 follicles was barely detectable. This was in contrast to a much higher expression of leptin receptor maintained in the theca layer of F3-F1 follicles. The present results indicate that in chickens leptin might be involved in the adaptation to starvation due to attenuation of follicular apoptosis. The presence of leptin receptors in the ovary indicates the possibility of a peripheral effect of the hormone.
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