Previous anatomical and histochemical studies suggested that interstitial cells were the only steroidogenic cells in the theca layer of small follicles of the chicken ovary. However, the precise cellular site of steroid production in the small follicles is not certain. Therefore, our goal was to identify steroidogenic cells in small follicles (< 10 mm in diameter) of the chicken ovary which have not entered the follicular hierarchy by localizing steroidogenic enzymes with immunocytochemistry. Polyclonal antisera used were anti-cholesterol side-chain-cleavage cytochrome P450 (P450scc), anti-17α-hydroxylase cytochrome P450 (P450c17), and anti-aromatase cytochrome P450 (P450arom) for pregnenolone-, androgen-, and estrogen-producing cells, respectively. Ovaries were collected 2 hr after oviposition and embedded in Paraplast after fixation with 4% paraformaldehyde, 10% formaldehyde, or Bouin's solution. Tissues were sectioned (4-6 μm) and sections were mounted on poly-L-lysine coated slides. Sections were incubated overnight at room temperature with each specific antiserum raised in rabbits against cytochrome P450 steroidogenic enzymes or normal rabbit serum as a control and were immunostained with an avidin-biotin-peroxidase complex. Immunoreactivity for the P450 enzymes was absent in the granulosa layer but was present in the theca layer of the small follicles (< 10 mm in diameter). Interstitial cells in the single theca layer of cortical follicles embedded in the ovarian cortex (less than 1 mm in diameter) contained P450scc and P450c17. Cells which contained P450arom, identified as aromatase cells, surrounded the interstitial cells in the theca layer. In small white follicles (approximately 1 mm in diameter), large white follicles (approximately 2-4 mm in diameter), and small yellow follicles (approximately 5-10 mm in diameter) which protruded from the surface of the ovary, the theca layer is divided into the theca interna and the theca externa. P450scc and P450c17 were localized in interstitial cells in the theca interna and externa whereas P450arom was localized in aromatase cells of the theca externa. With follicular development, more interstitial cells staining for P450scc and P450c17 appeared in the theca interna than in the theca externa whereas aromatase cells staining for P450arom were localized only in the theca externa. The distance between interstitial cells and aromatase cells within the theca layer increased as the follicles matured, resulting in a change in the anatomical relationship of steroidogenic cells. Our results of immunolocalization of cytochrome P450 steroidogenic enzymes in developing small follicles suggest that: 1) granulosa cells in small follicles are steroidogenically inactive; 2) steroids are produced in two distinct cell populations in the theca layer of small follicles, namely interstitial cells and aromatase cells; and 3) the anatomical relationship and location of interstitial cells and aromatase cells in the theca layer change with follicular maturation (a two-cell model for steroidogenesis in small follicles during follicular development). © 1991.
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