The ovarian pool of follicles, and their enclosed oocytes, is highly sensitive to hyperthermia. Heat-induced changes in small antral follicles can later manifest as impaired follicle development and compromised competence of the enclosed oocytes to undergo maturation, fertilisation and further development into an embryo. This review describes the main changes documented so far that underlie the oocyte damage. The review discusses some cellular and molecular mechanisms by which heat stress compromises oocyte developmental competence, such as impairment of nuclear and cytoplasmic maturation and mitochondrial function, changes in the expression of both nuclear and mitochondrial transcripts and the induction of apoptosis. The review emphasises that although the oocyte is exposed to heat stress, changes are also evident in the developed embryo. Moreover, the effect of heat stress is not limited to the summer; it carries over to the cold autumn, as manifest by impaired steroid production, low oocyte competence and reduced fertility. The spontaneous recovery of oocytes from the end of the summer through the autumn until the beginning of winter suggests that only subpopulations of follicles, rather than the entire ovarian reserve, are damaged upon heat exposure.
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- developmental competence
- heat stress