Recent studies have demonstrated that ovarian follicle atresia occurs extensively before follicle selection into the avian preovulatory hierarchy, and that this process is mediated via granulosa cell apoptosis. Subsequent to follicle selection, granulosa cells are inherently resistant to apoptosis, and such resistance is correlated with in creased expression of death suppressor genes such as bcl-xlong. In the present studies we used this avian ovary model system to 1) identify cellular characteristics and mechanisms related to apoptotic cell death of granulosa cells in vitro, and 2) further characterize functional differences between apoptosis susceptible (4- to 8- mm follicle) and apoptosis-resistant (preovulatory follicle) granulosa cells. Treatment of granulosa cells from the largest preovulatory follicle with N- octanoylsphingosine (C8-ceramide) results in pronounced oligonucleosome formation, a hallmark of apoptosis. That this is indicative of programmed cell death is supported by an increased incidence of pyknotic nuclei and apoptotic bodies in C8-ceramide-treated samples compared to that in control cultured cells. Tumor necrosis factor-α, a stimulator of ceramide production, actively promotes oligonucleosome formation in apoptosis- susceptible, but not in apoptosis-resistant, granulosa cells. Induction of apoptosis is also observed after exposure of apoptosis-resistant granulosa cells to sphingomyelinase treatment and UV irradiation, which are known to stimulate endogenous ceramide production, and to the anticancer drug, daunorubicin, which initiates de novo ceramide biosynthesis via activation of ceramide synthase. Although treatment of granulosa cells with fumonisin B1, a specific ceramide synthase inhibitor, blocks daunorubicin-stimulated oligonucleosome formation, UV-induced cell death is unaffected. Taken together, these results demonstrate that pharmacological factors known to mimic the actions of ceramide or stimulate ceramide production can induce oligonucleosome formation and programmed cell death in granulosa cells. More importantly, however, the ability of a physiologically relevant initiator of ceramide biosynthesis, tumor necrosis factor-α, to promote cell death is evident only in apoptosis-susceptible granulosa cells collected from atresia- prone prehierarchal follicles. These data provide support for ceramide as an important intracellular signaling mechanism, mediating granulosa cell apoptosis and follicle atresia.
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