The regulation of germ cell number in the developing ovary is central to female reproduction. Members of the Bcl-2 family of proapoptotic and antiapoptotic proteins have been implicated in this process in rodents. We investigated the expression of Mcl-1, Bcl-2, Bax, and BAD at 13-21 gestational wk in the human fetal ovary and of Mcl-1 in the adult ovary. mRNA expression of Mcl-1 and its short form Mcl-1s, Bcl-2, Bax, and BAD was demonstrated in fetal ovary by RT-PCR. Hybridization array analysis suggested a selective increase in Mcl-1 expression between 14 and 18 wk gestation, which was confirmed by quantitative PCR. There was a corresponding change in the expression of Mcl-1 protein, detected by immunohistochemistry, from germ cells at the periphery of the ovary at 14-16 wk to the largest germ cells, including oocytes within newly formed primordial follicles, at 21 wk. Mcl-1 was also expressed by oocytes of primordial and preantral follicles in the adult. Bax and BAD immunostaining was detected in both somatic and germ cells in the fetal ovary, whereas Bcl-2 was restricted to somatic cells: no changes in expression were observed. Apoptotic cells, detected by terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase-mediated dUTP nick end labeling, were observed in all fetal ovaries but were infrequent. These results confirm that Bcl-2 family members are differentially expressed in several cell types within the developing human ovary. Increased mRNA expression and the changing distribution of Mcl-1 in germ cells as they develop into primordial follicles as well as persistence in the growing oocyte in the adult may indicate an important role for this survival/antiapoptotic factor throughout germ cell development and maturation.