, Volume 47, Issue 10, pp 1026-1038

Sexual maturation in female rats: Hereditary, developmental and environmental aspects

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Abstract

Two physiological components of sexual maturation, vaginal opening and first estrus, apparently evolve similarly in Wistar and Sprague-Dawley rats. However, a bimodal distribution in the frequency of the days of vaginal opening is observed within a given strain, which is less related to heredity than to the timing and type of experiment. In addition, when the modulators of sexual maturation are reviewed, it can be observed that sensitivity to external stimuli can vary even within a strain. For a defined set of breeding conditions, one group of rats can be more susceptible to changes in the lighting regimen and not be affected by controlled stressors, while another group responds more to stress and less to light. The reason for susceptibility to one rather than another environmental factor under similar breeding conditions is not understood. In that context, it is difficult to evaluate the role of heredity when we cannot understand the full impact of the environment, not to mention maternal influence in fetal and early life. Using two lines of psychogenetically selected rats, it was possible to show that they had differences in sexual maturation, which strongly suggested a genetic predisposition. Nevertheless, the question arises as to whether the genetic locus directly affects organs implicated in sexual maturation or whether it acts on some unknown factor which only secondarily modifies sexual maturation. In summary, there is more need to understand the role of the environment, including that of the mother early in fetal and neonatal life. It is suggested that the mechanisms underlying organ growth are set for a given species, while developmental and environmental factors fix the timing of vaginal opening and first ovulation. In the rat, there appear to be two times which are preferred for vaginal opening, given the laboratory conditions that have been used in the last 20 or so years: an early period, at 31–35 days, and a late period, at 36–40 days. An explanation for this dichotomy would be that a combination of parameters (not necessarily always the same) is needed for vaginal opening. These parameters oscillate during sexual maturation with different frequencies, which can achieve resonance to lead to vaginal opening and ovulation only during given periods.