Cell-to-cell communication was characterized in cumulus-oocyte complexes from rat ovarian follicles before and after ovulation. Numerous, small gap junctional contacts were present between cumulus cells and oocytes before ovulation. The gap junction are formed on the oocyte surface by cumulus cell processes that transverse the zona pellucida and contact the oolemma. The entire cumulus mass was also connected by gap junctions via cumulus-cumulus interactions. In the hours preceding ovulation, the frequency of gap junctional contacts between cumulus cells and the oocyte was reduced, and the cumulus was disorganized. Electrophysiological measurements indicated that bidirectional ionic coupling was present between the cumulus and oocyte before ovulation. In addition, iontophoretically injected fluorescein dye was tranferred between the oocyte and cumulus cells. Examination of the extent of ionic coupling in cumulus-oocyte specimens before and after ovulation revealed that ionic coupling between the cumulus and oocyte progressively decreased as the time of ovulation approached. In postovulatory specimens, no coupling was detected. Although some proteolytic mechanism may be involved in the disintegration of the cumulus-oocyte complex, neither the cumulus cells nor the oocyte produced detectable levels of plasminogen activator, a protease which is synthesized by membrana granulosa cells. In summary, cell communication is a characterisitc feature of the cumulus-oocyte complex, and this communication is terminated near the time of ovulation. This temporal pattern of the termination of communication between the cumulus and the oocyte may indicate that communication provides a mechanism for regulating the maturation of the oocyte during follicular development before ovulation.

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