Following treatment with estradiol-17β (E2) on day 6 of the menstrual cycle, degenerative alterations in the microenvironment of the dominant follicle (DF) (follicular fluid [FF], granulosa cells [GC], and oocyte) are readily apparent on day 10, or 96 h after E2 administration. The present study was designed to determine how early such changes could be detected and which indices of atresia were observed first. The DF was identified during laparoscopy on day 5 or 6 of the cycle, and four capsules containing crystalline E2 were inserted s.c. for 24 h. Contents of the DF were aspirated at 24, 48, and 72 h following initiation of E2 treatment. General size and appearance of the DF did not change distinctly with E2 treatment; however, by 48 h FF viscosity was increased markedly. GC viability was not altered with treatment. FF concentrations of estrogen (E) were dramatically reduced at 24 h. These differences were maintained at 48 h and at 72 h. E accumulation by cultured GC was significantly reduced by > eightfold. There appeared a similar trend for reduced progesterone (P) in FF and decreased P production by GC in vitro. These results demonstrate that degenerative alterations in the DF indicative of atresia can be detected as early as 24 h after initiation of E2 treatment; the index of atresia appearing earliest is a reduction in FF concentrations of E, and the first morphological changes in the DF can be observed 24 h later. This study indicates that biochemical alterations precede morphologic changes with E2-induced atresia, and should allow us to begin to determine the earliest events and putative initiation sites of atresia.