Culture of preantral follicles has important biotechnological implications through its potential to produce large quantities of oocytes for embryo production and transfer. A long-term culture system for bovine preantral follicles is described. Bovine preantral follicles (166 +/- 2.15 micrometer), surrounded by theca cells, were isolated from ovarian cortical slices. Follicles were cultured under conditions known to maintain granulosa cell viability in vitro. The effects of epidermal growth factor (EGF), insulin-like growth factor (IGF)-I, FSH, and coculture with bovine granulosa cells on preantral follicle growth were analyzed. Follicle and oocyte diameter increased significantly (P < 0.05) with time in culture. FSH, IGF-I, and EGF stimulated (P < 0.05) follicle growth rate but had no effect on oocyte growth. Coculture with granulosa cells inhibited FSH/IGF-I-stimulated growth. Most follicles maintained their morphology throughout culture, with the presence of a thecal layer and basement membrane surrounding the granulosa cells. Antrum formation, confirmed by confocal microscopy, occurred between Days 10 and 28 of culture. The probability of follicles reaching antrum development was 0.19 for control follicles. The addition of growth factors or FSH increased (P < 0.05) the probability of antrum development to 0.55. Follicular growth appeared to be halted by slower growth of the basement membrane, as growing follicles occasionally burst the basement membrane, extruding their granulosa cells. In conclusion, a preantral follicle culture system in which follicle morphology can be maintained for up to 28 days has been developed. In this system, FSH, EGF, and IGF-I stimulated follicle growth and enhanced antrum formation. This culture system may provide a valuable approach for studying the regulation of early follicular development and for production of oocytes for nuclear/embryo transfer, but further work is required.