Our recent studies show little evidence for increased granulosa cell apoptosis during atresia in teleost follicles, in direct contrast to the mammalian model. Histological evidence suggests that atresia in many oviparous vertebrates involves proteolytic degradation of the energy-rich yolk storage proteins within the oocyte. This study tests the hypothesis that physiological conditions that promote atresia (hormone withdrawal) lead to increased lysosomal protease activity in rainbow trout oocytes. We subjected rainbow trout ovarian follicles to conditions that promote atresia (serum-free culture) for up to 72 hr, and measured the activity of lysosomal proteases using routine enzymatic assays. Furthermore, we used high performance liquid chromatography to quantify the increase in free amino acids resulting from proteolysis of yolk proteins. Concomitantly, we evaluated the extent of follicular apoptosis during prolonged serum-free culture, using caspase-3-like activity and DNA fragmentation as indicators of apoptosis. Our results show a significant, time-dependent increase in cathepsin L-like, but not cathepsin D-like, activity levels during culture in serum-free medium; increased cathepsin L-like activity is confirmed by a significant increase in oocyte free amino acid content after 72 hr culture. In contrast, we detected only a transient increase in apoptosis during prolonged serum-free culture, as revealed through both radioactive 3'end-labeling of oligonucleosomal DNA fragments, and caspase-3-like activity. The results of this study provide the first evidence for a novel mechanism of follicular atresia in teleosts involving cathepsin-mediated yolk proteolysis.
Copyright 2003 Wiley-Liss, Inc.