Oogenesis in Adult Mammals, Including Humans: A Review
The origin of oocytes and primary follicles in ovaries of adult mammalian females has been a matter of dispute for over 100 yr. The prevailing belief that all oocytes in adult mammalian females must persist from the fetal period of life seems to be a uniquely retrogressive reproductive mechanism requiring humans to preserve their gametes from the fetal period for several decades. The utilization of modern techniques during last 10 yr clearly demonstrates that mammalian primordial germ cells originate from somatic cell precursors. This indicates that if somatic cells are precursors of germ cells, then somatic mutations can be passed on to progeny. Mitotically active germline stem cells have been described earlier in ovaries of adult prosimian primates and recently have been reported to also be present in the ovaries of adult mice. We have earlier shown that in adult human females, mesenchymal cells in the ovarian tunica albuginea undergo a mesenchymal-epithelial transition into ovarian surface epithelium cells, which differentiate sequentially into primitive granulosa and germ cells. Recently, we have reported that these structures assemble in the deeper ovarian cortex and form new follicles to replace earlier primary follicles undergoing atresia (follicular renewal). Our current observations also indicate that follicular renewal exists in rat ovaries, and human oocytes can differentiate from ovarian surface epithelium in fetal ovaries in vivo and from adult ovaries in vitro. These reports challenge the established dogma regarding the fetal origin of eggs and primary follicles in adult mammalian ovaries. Our data indicate that the pool of primary follicles in adult human ovaries does not represent a static but a dynamic population of differentiating and regressing structures. Yet, the follicular renewal may cease at a certain age, and this may predetermine the onset of the natural menopause or premature ovarian failure. A lack of follicular renewal in aging ovaries may cause an accumulation of spontaneously arising or environmentally induced genetic alterations of oocytes, and that may be why aging females have a much higher chance of having oocytes with more mutations in persisting primary follicles.