BACKGROUND: Little is known about metabolic processes in the developing ovarian follicle. Using mouse ovarian follicles, we investigated uptake of L-leucine by follicles at varying stages of maturity in the presence of insulin-like growth factor (IGF)-1. METHODS Mouse ovarian follicles were cultured in vitro for 5 days in increasing concentrations of IGF-1, and follicle diameter and atresia measured as endpoints for growth. Uptake of (3)H-leucine was measured in follicles at different stages of development. In optimal IGF-1-mediated growth conditions, competitive inhibition of (3)H-leucine uptake by 2-aminobicyclo-(2,2,1)-heptane-2-carboxylic acid (BCH), a non-metabolizable substrate analogue of L-leucine, was performed to demonstrate specificity of influx, via system L transporters. To test whether uptake rates were dependent on intracellular amino acid availability, follicles from in vitro cultures were pre-treated with L-phenylalanine prior to (3)H-leucine uptake. RESULTS: Follicle development (P< 0.001) and survival (P< 0.001) increased with IGF-1 treatment. As pre-antral follicles progressed to late antral stage, we observed an increase in L-leucine uptake, which was reduced in pre-ovulatory follicles. BCH decreased L-leucine uptake rates in early antral (P< 0.05), antral (P< 0.001) and pre-ovulatory follicles (P< 0.01). L-leucine influx increased in follicles preloaded with phenylalanine (trans-stimulation). In follicles lacking free intracellular amino acids (zero-trans suppression), uptake rate was reduced (P< 0.05). CONCLUSIONS: These results demonstrate, for the first time, evidence of specific system L amino acid transport in intact, mouse ovarian follicles and profile L-leucine uptake during folliculogenesis. A better understanding of ovarian follicle metabolic pathways is necessary for improved in vitro maturation as well as determining the impact of altered metabolism on fertility.