Beyond apoptosis: evidence of other regulated cell death pathways in the ovary throughout development and life

Hum Reprod Update. 2023 Jul 5;29(4):434-456. doi: 10.1093/humupd/dmad005.


Background: Regulated cell death is a fundamental component of numerous physiological processes; spanning from organogenesis in utero, to normal cell turnover during adulthood, as well as the elimination of infected or damaged cells throughout life. Quality control through regulation of cell death pathways is particularly important in the germline, which is responsible for the generation of offspring. Women are born with their entire supply of germ cells, housed in functional units known as follicles. Follicles contain an oocyte, as well as specialized somatic granulosa cells essential for oocyte survival. Follicle loss-via regulated cell death-occurs throughout follicle development and life, and can be accelerated following exposure to various environmental and lifestyle factors. It is thought that the elimination of damaged follicles is necessary to ensure that only the best quality oocytes are available for reproduction.

Objective and rationale: Understanding the precise factors involved in triggering and executing follicle death is crucial to uncovering how follicle endowment is initially determined, as well as how follicle number is maintained throughout puberty, reproductive life, and ovarian ageing in women. Apoptosis is established as essential for ovarian homeostasis at all stages of development and life. However, involvement of other cell death pathways in the ovary is less established. This review aims to summarize the most recent literature on cell death regulators in the ovary, with a particular focus on non-apoptotic pathways and their functions throughout the discrete stages of ovarian development and reproductive life.

Search methods: Comprehensive literature searches were carried out using PubMed and Google Scholar for human, animal, and cellular studies published until August 2022 using the following search terms: oogenesis, follicle formation, follicle atresia, oocyte loss, oocyte apoptosis, regulated cell death in the ovary, non-apoptotic cell death in the ovary, premature ovarian insufficiency, primordial follicles, oocyte quality control, granulosa cell death, autophagy in the ovary, autophagy in oocytes, necroptosis in the ovary, necroptosis in oocytes, pyroptosis in the ovary, pyroptosis in oocytes, parthanatos in the ovary, and parthanatos in oocytes.

Outcomes: Numerous regulated cell death pathways operate in mammalian cells, including apoptosis, autophagic cell death, necroptosis, and pyroptosis. However, our understanding of the distinct cell death mediators in each ovarian cell type and follicle class across the different stages of life remains the source of ongoing investigation. Here, we highlight recent evidence for the contribution of non-apoptotic pathways to ovarian development and function. In particular, we discuss the involvement of autophagy during follicle formation and the role of autophagic cell death, necroptosis, pyroptosis, and parthanatos during follicle atresia, particularly in response to physiological stressors (e.g. oxidative stress).

Wider implications: Improved knowledge of the roles of each regulated cell death pathway in the ovary is vital for understanding ovarian development, as well as maintenance of ovarian function throughout the lifespan. This information is pertinent not only to our understanding of endocrine health, reproductive health, and fertility in women but also to enable identification of novel fertility preservation targets.

Keywords: apoptosis; autophagy; fertility; granulosa cell; necroptosis; oocyte; ovary; parthanatos; pyroptosis; regulated cell death.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Animals
  • Apoptosis / physiology
  • Female
  • Granulosa Cells / metabolism
  • Granulosa Cells / physiology
  • Homeostasis / physiology
  • Humans
  • Mammals / growth & development
  • Mammals / physiology
  • Oocytes* / growth & development
  • Oocytes* / physiology
  • Ovarian Follicle / growth & development
  • Ovarian Follicle / physiology
  • Ovary* / growth & development
  • Ovary* / physiology
  • Regulated Cell Death* / physiology