The neurotrophin nerve growth factor (NGF) and its two membrane-anchored receptors are expressed in the developing ovary before the organization of the first primordial follicles. In the absence of NGF, the growth of primordial follicles is retarded, indicating that NGF contributes to facilitating early follicular development. The present experiments were undertaken to determine whether NGF can also be involved in the differentiation process by which ovarian follicles become responsive to gonadotropins. Treatment of 2-d-old rat ovaries in organ culture with NGF increased FSH receptor (FSHR) mRNA within 8 h of exposure. This effect was cAMP-independent but additive to the cAMP-mediated increase in FSHR gene expression induced by either forskolin or vasoactive intestinal peptide, a neurotransmitter previously shown to induce FSHR formation in neonatal rat ovaries. After NGF treatment, the ovary acquired the capacity of responding to FSH with cAMP formation and preantral follicular growth, indicating that exposure to the neurotrophin resulted in the formation of biologically active FSHRs. Quantitative measurement of FSHR mRNA demonstrated that the content of FSHR mRNA is reduced in the ovaries of mice carrying a null mutation of the NGF gene. These results indicate that one of the functions of NGF in the developing ovary is to facilitate the differentiation process by which early growing follicles become gonadotropin-dependent during postnatal life, and that it does so by increasing the synthesis of FSHRs.
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