In female rats, apoptotic cell death in the corpus luteum is induced by the prolactin (PRL) surge occurring in the proestrous afternoon during the estrous cycle. We have previously shown that this luteolytic action of PRL is mediated by the Fas/Fas ligand (FasL) system. During pregnancy or pseudopregnancy, apoptosis does not occur in the corpus luteum. Progesterone (P4), a steroid hormone secreted from luteal steroidogenic cells, attenuated PRL-induced apoptosis in cultured luteal cells in a dose-dependent manner. P4 significantly decreased the expression of mRNA of Fas, but not FasL, in cultured luteal cells prepared from both proestrous and mid-pseudopregnant rats. These data indicate that P4 suppresses PRL-induced luteal cell apoptosis via reduction of the expression level of Fas mRNA in the corpus luteum, suggesting that P4 acts as an important factor that can change the sensitivity of corpus luteum to PRL. (C) 2000 Federation of European Biochemical Societies.