The aim of this study was to investigate the sites of follistatin and α and βA inhibin mRNA expression in the ovaries of female sheep fetuses at 90, 100, 120 and 135 days of gestation (term=day 147). At 90 and 100 days primordial follicles were formed, followed by the appearance of primary follicles at 100 days of gestation. At days 120 and 135, primordial, primary and preantral (i.e. secondary) follicles were present in the ovaries, but antral (i.e. tertiary) follicles were not observed at any of these gestational ages. Two Booroola genotypes were studied: homozygous carriers (BB) and non-carriers (++) of the fecundity gene (FecB). Irrespective of genotype no specific hybridization of the α and βA inhibin riboprobes was detected in any ovarian cells at days 90, 100, 120 or 135 of gestation. In control mature ovaries, on the other hand, strong hybridization in the granulosa cells of antral follicles was observed. In contrast to α and βA inhibin, follistatin antisense (but not sense) riboprobes hybridized specifically to the granulosa cells of preantral follicles with two or more layers of cells at days 120 and 135 of gestation. Moreover, hybridization was also evident in the cells of the ovarian rete at days 120 and 135, but not at 90 or 100 days. No follistatin mRNA expression was observed in the granulosa cells of primordial or primary follicles or in any other ovarian cell type at any of the gestational ages examined. No FecB-specific differences in follistatin expression were noted with respect to stage of preantral follicular development and there were no obvious differences in the intensity of expression.
These results show that follistatin mRNA is expressed specifically in the granulosa cells and intraovarian rete. Expression of follistatin in rete cells was coincident with the increasing numbers of growing follicles within the fetal ovary, indicating that rete cell function may have a role in the ontogeny of early follicular growth. Our results suggest that follistatin and α and βA inhibin may not be important for the initiation of follicle growth in the sheep ovary, since these genes are not expressed during the transformation of a primordial follicle to a primary structure. However, the evidence for follistatin mRNA expression in the ovine fetal ovary implies that this hormone is likely to play a role during the early stages of follicle growth.