The postpartum involution of corpora lutea was examined by electron microscope cytochemistry of guinea pig ovaries previously fixed by vascular perfusion, a method which produces optimal preservation of steroid-secreting cells and yet maintains enzyme activity. The intracellular digestive apparatus was identified through the localization of two acid hydrolases, acid phosphatase (ACPase) and arylsulfatase. Other marker enzymes localized were thiamine pyrophosphatase (in Golgi cisternae) and alkaline phosphatase (along plasma membranes). Prolonged osmication was used to mark the outer Golgi cisterna. The results demonstrate that luteal cell regression is characterized by a striking increase in the number of lysosomes and the appearance of numerous, double-walled autophagic vacuoles. Both lysosomes and the space between the double walls of autophagic vacuoles exhibit ACPase and arylsulfatase activity. In contrast to earlier periods, just before and during regression, Golgi complex-endoplasmic reticulum-lysosomes (GERL) is markedly hypertrophied, displaying intense acid hydrolase activity. On the basis of various criteria, GERL is proposed to function in the formation of lysosomes and autophagic vacuoles. Lysosomes seem to develop from GERL as focal protuberances of varying size and shape, which detach from the parent structure. Double-walled autophagic vacuoles, often large and complex in structure, initially are produced as GERL cisternae envelop small areas of cytoplasm. Lytic enzymes, perhaps furnished by the engulfing membranes and trapped lysosomes, presumably bring about digestion of the contents of these vacuoles, producing first aggregate-type inclusions, then, as the contents are further degraded, myelin figure-filled residual bodies. ACPase activity occasionally appears within smooth endoplasmic reticulum tubules and cisternae in advanced regression, possibly suggesting that lytic enzymes utilize this membrane system as an access route to GERL. These data indicate that cellular autophagy is a prominent mechanism underlying luteal cell involution during normal postpartum degeneration of guinea pig corpora lutea. Furthermore they suggest that in regressing luteal cells GERL is responsible for packaging acid hydrolases into lytic bodies.

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