The nature and role of the peptidergic innervation of the ovary were examined by determining the location and function of vasoactive intestinal peptide (VIP)-containing nerve fibers in the immature rat ovary. Immunohistofluorescence analysis of prepubertal ovaries using a specific VIP antibody revealed sparse delicate VIP-immunoreactive fibers localized around veins and arterioles, in the interstitial tissue, and associated with the thecal layers of developing follicles. Radioimmunoassayable VIP content was found to be approximately 100 pg/ovary (3 nM). The VIP immunoreactivity coeluted with authentic VIP when subjected to Sephadex G-25 chromatography. VIP enhanced in vitro progesterone release from infantile (12 days old), juvenile (30 days old), and peripubertal ovaries and estradiol release during the two latter developmental periods. The maximal estradiol response to VIP occurred during the early and first proestrous phases of puberty. No response was observed during estrus or first diestrus. The progesterone response to VIP increased moderately between day 12 and first proestrus, and then strikingly at estrus and first diestrus. The stimulatory effect of VIP on ovarian steroid production was dose related, as determined in ovaries from PMSG-treated immature rats (ED50 = 215, 44, and 51 nm for estradiol, androgen, and progesterone, respectively). The specificity of the VIP effect was tested using five other gastrointestinal peptides (porcine peptide histidine isoleucine, gastric inhibitory polypeptide, secretin, motilin, and glucagon). Only peptide histidine isoleucine, which has the greatest sequence homology with VIP, enhanced ovarian steroid production at 50% of VIP effectiveness. VIPergic nerves thus appear to be involved in the developmental regulation of ovarian steroidogenesis.
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