Long Live the Ovary: Mutant Mice Keep Eggs

By Travis, J. | Science News, February 6, 1999 | Go to article overview

Long Live the Ovary: Mutant Mice Keep Eggs


Travis, J., Science News


It's among the most wasteful phenomena in the human body. A female starts her life with millions of immature eggs, or oocytes, in her ovaries. Yet over the years, most of those cells commit suicide, eventually leaving the ovaries barren.

A similar squandering occurs in many mammals, but researchers have now found that a gene mutation can thwart this process in female mice. When they lack normal copies of the gene called BAX, aged rodents--the equivalent of women 100 to 120 years old--retain the egg-filled ovaries of a young mouse.

"Not only can a [mutation in a] single gene protect a large number of egg cells, it can actually prolong ovarian life span in mice," says Jonathan L. Tilly of the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

Tilly and his colleagues describe the seemingly healthy, mutant mice in the February NATURE GENETICS. With age, the animals still become infertile, the researchers find, presumably because their brains stop sending hormones that command the ovary to release mature eggs, or ovulate. "Apparently, the neuroendocrine system that drives the ovaries is not functioning," says Frank Bellino of the National Institute on Aging in Bethesda, Md.

Artificial means, however, can jumpstart the elderly ovaries of the mutant mice. Tilly's group showed that the injection of a hormone that normally triggers ovulation stimulates 20-to-22-month-old mice to release mature eggs into their oviducts. When fertilized by sperm, the eggs begin to divide as expected. The researchers are now testing the quality of the aged eggs by fertilizing them and then implanting them in surrogate mothers.

The gene mutated by Tilly's group encodes a protein employed by oocytes when they start to commit suicide. …

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