The aim of this study was to investigate whether apoptosis occurs in cumulus cells during in vitro maturation (IVM) of bovine cumulus-enclosed oocytes (CEOs). The bovine CEOs obtained from ovaries from an abattoir were cultured for 24 h in IVM medium in the presence or absence of 10% (v/v) fetal bovine serum. The developmental competence of enclosed oocytes, as assessed by the development of the blastocyst after IVF, was significantly higher in the serum-treated group than in the control group. The morphological features of apoptosis that were analysed by orcein staining were hardly detectable in the cumulus cells at the start (0 h) of IVM, but were evident at the end (24 h) of IVM both in the control and serum-treated groups. Genomic DNA was extracted from CEOs at 0, 6, 12, 18 and 24 h of IVM and subjected to ligation-mediated PCR (LM-PCR) to detect apoptotic internucleosomal DNA fragmentation. DNA fragmentation was hardly detectable at the start of IVM, but increased in a time-dependent manner as the IVM culture proceeded. DNA fragmentation was not observed in the oocytes, indicating that fragmentation occurs in cumulus cells. The degree of fragmentation was lower in the serum-treated group compared with the control group. The LM-PCR analysis of DNA extracted from CEOs at 24 h of IVM, in which the DNA had been pretreated with Klenow enzyme or T4 DNA polymerase, revealed that the characteristic forms of the DNA ends generated during cumulus cell apoptosis were mainly 3'-overhangs and blunt ends. In conclusion, the results of the present study demonstrate that cumulus cells in bovine CEOs spontaneously undergo apoptosis during IVM. The degree of apoptosis may be correlated with the developmental competence of the enclosed oocytes.