Women are born with a million egg progenitor cells but only around 500 of these will ever be released as eggs, or oocytes. The remaining cells degrade and die and the reasons behind this have remained largely obscure.
The study includes work on both mouse and human oocytes demonstrating that DNA damage in both increases with age. The researchers also showed an age-related decline in expression of a group of genes essential for DNA damage repair, including the BRCA genes.
Mouse eggs engineered to express low levels of DNA repair genes were then exposed to hydrogen peroxide, or bleach. As expected, higher rates of DNA damage were observed in these eggs when compared to controls. However, older mouse eggs engineered to over-express BRCA1 were on par with eggs from younger mice in coping with hydrogen peroxide exposure.
Finally the paper includes studies on both mice and people with mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. In humans BRCA1 mutations were linked to lower 'ovarian reserve' - a measure of how many oocytes a woman has in her ovaries - and in mice with lower litter sizes.
BRCA2 mutations did not appear to have an appreciable effect. However, according to The Scientist, Dr Oktay 'suspects that the BRCA2 mutation may have more minor effects on oocyte decline that become apparent later in life'.
In a commentary accompanying the study, Dr David Keefe of New York University, says that the findings 'provide compelling new evidence for a new mechanism' explaining why a woman's eggs become dysfunctional with age.
Dr Oktay says he hopes to apply his research to ultimately find a treatment to help maintain the efficiency of DNA repair mechanisms, which would in turn extend a woman's window of fertility. 'Such a treatment might be able to extend a woman's ability to have children into her early 50s', he told Bloomberg News.
However, speaking to The Scientist, he added: 'We need to find out why with age the repair efficiency goes down. Then we can manipulate the whole thing'.