During post-lactational mammary gland involution, the bulk of mammary epithelium dies and is reabsorbed. This massive cell death and tissue restructuring was found to be accompanied by a specific pattern of gene expression. Northern blot analysis showed that weaning resulted in a dramatic drop in ODC, a gene involved in synthesis of a component of milk, and the nearly simultaneous induction of SGP-2, a gene associated with apoptotic cell death. These changes were followed by decreases in expression of milk protein genes to basal levels and expression of genes associated with regulation of cell proliferation and differentiation, p53, c-myc and TGF-beta 1. Subsequently, additional genes implicated in stress response, tissue remodelling, and apoptotic cell death were transiently expressed, expression peaking at about 6 days post-weaning. A non-random degradation of DNA yielding the oligonucleosomal length fragmentation pattern typical of apoptotic cell death (Wyllie, 1980; Wyllie et al., 1980) was detected in association with morphological changes and gene expression. The correlations between: (a) changes in morphology, (b) pattern of gene expression and (c) changes in DNA integrity suggest that complementary programs for cell death and tissue remodelling direct post-lactational mammary gland involution.

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