Fetal oocyte attrition (FOA) is a conserved but poorly understood process of elimination of more than two-thirds of meiotic prophase I (MPI) oocytes before birth. We now implicate retrotransposons LINE-1 (L1), activated during epigenetic reprogramming of the embryonic germline, in FOA in mice. We show that wild-type fetal oocytes possess differential nuclear levels of L1ORF1p, an L1-encoded protein essential for L1 ribonucleoprotein particle (L1RNP) formation and L1 retrotransposition. We demonstrate that experimental elevation of L1 expression correlates with increased MPI defects, FOA, oocyte aneuploidy, and embryonic lethality. Conversely, reverse transcriptase (RT) inhibitor AZT has a profound effect on the FOA dynamics and meiotic recombination, and it implicates an RT-dependent trigger in oocyte elimination in early MPI. We propose that FOA serves to select oocytes with limited L1 activity that are therefore best suited for the next generation.
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