Oocytes are sequestered in primordial follicles before birth and remain quiescent in the ovary, often for decades, until recruited into the growing pool throughout the reproductive years. Therefore, activation of follicle growth is a major biological checkpoint that controls female reproductive potential. However, we are only just beginning to elucidate the cellular mechanisms required for either maintenance of the quiescent primordial follicle pool or initiation of follicle growth. Understanding the intracellular signalling systems that control oocyte maintenance and activation has significant implications for improving female reproductive productivity and longevity in mammals, and has application in domestic animal husbandry, feral animal population control and infertility in women. © 2009 Society for Reproduction and Fertility.