Atretic demise rather than ovulation is the ultimate fate of the vast majority of ovarian follicles in mammals, affecting 70-99.9% of the follicles in various species. Recent studies have established that atretic degeneration of follicles is an apoptotic process, heralded by endonuclease degradation of DNA at internucleosomal sites, which generates DNA fragments in size multiples of 185-200 bp that are seen as distinct ladder bands after agarose gel electrophoresis. Using the well-characterized model of inducing atresia of preovulatory follicles in vivo by hypophysectomy and analyzing DNA fragmentation by autoradiography of size-fractionated DNA labeled at the 3' ends by [32P] dideoxy-ATP, we have examined the timing of atretic changes. DNA degradation was related to morphological signs of atresia, ovulability, and changes in follicular steroidogenesis. Rats were hypophysectomized on the morning of the day of proestrus, after which largest follicles were collected at various times. DNA fragmentation was analyzed in groups of five follicles. The increase in DNA fragments of low molecular weight up to 4 h after hypophysectomy was negligible (101 ± 10%; 0 h time = 100%) but progressed 8, 12, 24, 48, and 72 h after hypophysectomy (143 ± 20%, 168 ± 27%, 235 ± 29%, 3299 ± 1075%, and 2249 ± 805%, respectively; p < 0.03, n = 5). At 48 and 72 h, the extent of DNA degradation was higher than that observed in follicles cultured in a serum-free medium for 24 h. Likewise, staining of DNA by 4',6-diamido-2-phenylindole hydrochloride revealed apoptotic nuclei at 8 h after hypophysectomy (p < 0.01), and the percentage of such nuclei progressively increased afterwards. Thus, the increase in DNA fragmentation appeared concomitantly with atretic changes observed in previous studies (a decrease in ovulability at 6 h, and a spontaneous increase in progesterone accumulation and decrease in androgen and estrogen in follicles explanted 6 h after hypophysectomy) and preceded atresia detectable by morphological changes at 24 h. Detection of internucleosomal DNA degradation in preovulatory follicles early in the atretic cascade underscores the central role of apoptosis in ovarian follicle atresia.