Int. J. Dev. Biol. 56: 819 - 831 (2012)
doi: 10.1387/ijdb.120133cc
© UPV/EHU Press

The antral follicle: a microenvironment for oocyte differentiation

Margo L. Hennet and Catherine M. H. Combelles*

Middlebury College, Biology Department, Middlebury, VT, USA

ABSTRACT Mammalian reproduction hinges upon the timely ovulation of a fully differentiated oocyte. This event is the culmination of a complex and dynamic developmental relationship between the oocyte and the antral follicle housing it; the antral follicle constitutes a specialized microenvironment or niche, uniquely suited to the needs of the oocyte as it approaches ovulation. During this time, the oocyte must complete its final growth, capacitation, and nuclear and cytoplasmic maturation. Its microenvironment—the antral follicle—is in turn responsible for the integrity of these processes and the production of a high quality oocyte. Components of the antral follicle, including three distinct somatic cell types (theca, granulosa and cumulus), the basal lamina, and follicular fluid, each have active and regulatory roles in oocyte differentiation. Several milestones in antral folliculogenesis also have an influence on oocyte development. This review will discuss the antral follicle microenvironment with specific attention to its importance in oocyte differentiation. As assisted reproductive technologies (ART) often require stages of oocyte differentiation to occur in vitro rather than in vivo, current knowledge of the antral follicle microenvironment will also be discussed with respect to its clinical applications.

Keywords:

antral follicle, oocyte, microenvironment, niche, oocyte quality

*Corresponding author e-mail: ccombell@middlebury.edu