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Helena Fulka, Milan Mrazek, Olga Tepla, and Josef Fulka Jr

We report on observations of the global methylation/demethylation pattern of both pronuclei in human zygotes and in early embryos up to the blastocyst stage. Our results demonstrate that in about half of the zygotes examined the paternal chromatin was less methylated than the maternal chromatin. In the other half, both pronuclei exhibited the same intensity of labeling. The nuclei in developing embryos were intensively labeled for up to the four-cell stage; thereafter, a decline of labeling intensity was detected. Remethylation in some nuclei starts in late morulae. Surprisingly, and unlike the mouse, at the blastocyst stage the inner cell mass showed a weaker intensity of labeling than the trophectodermal cells.

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Pasqualino Loi, Josef Fulka Jr, Thomas Hildebrand, and Grazyna Ptak

Reproductive technologies have been often used as a tool in research not strictly connected with developmental biology. In this study, we retrace the experimental routes that have led to the adoption of two reproductive technologies, ICSI and somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), as biological assays to probe the ‘functionality’ of the genome from dead cells. The structural peculiarities of the spermatozoa nucleus, namely its lower water content and its compact chromatin structure, have made it the preferred cell for these experiments. The studies, primarily focused on mice, have demonstrated an unexpected stability of the spermatozoa nuclei, which retained the capacity to form pronuclei once injected into the oocytes even after severe denaturing agents like acid treatment and high-temperature exposure. These findings inspired further research culminating in the production of mice after ICSI of lyophilized spermatozoa. The demonstrated non-equivalence between cell vitality and nuclear vitality in spermatozoa prompted analogous studies on somatic cells. Somatic cells were treated with the same physical stress applied to spermatozoa and were injected into enucleated sheep oocytes. Despite the presumptive fragile nuclear structure, nuclei from non-viable cells (heat treated) directed early and post-implantation embryonic development on nuclear transfer, resulting in normal offspring. Recently, lyophilized somatic cells used for nuclear transfer have developed into normal embryos. In summary, ICSI and SCNT have been useful tools to prove that alternative strategies for storing banks of non-viable cells are realistic. Finally, the potential application of freeze-dried spermatozoa and cells is also discussed.

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Irina Lagutina, Valeri Zakhartchenko, Helena Fulka, Silvia Colleoni, Eckhard Wolf, Josef Fulka Jr, Giovanna Lazzari, and Cesare Galli

The most successful development of interspecies somatic cell nuclear transfer (iSCNT) embryos has been achieved in closely related species. The analyses of embryonic gene activity in iSCNT embryos of different species combinations have revealed the existence of significant aberrations in expression of housekeeping genes and genes dependent on the major embryonic genome activation (EGA). However, there are many studies with successful blastocyst (BL) development of iSCNT embryos derived from donor cells and oocytes of animal species with distant taxonomical relations (inter-family/inter-class) that should indicate proper EGA at least in terms of RNA polymerase I activation, nucleoli formation, and activation of genes engaged in morula and BL formation. We investigated the ability of bovine, porcine, and rabbit oocytes to activate embryonic nucleoli formation in the nuclei of somatic cells of different mammalian species. In iSCNT embryos, nucleoli precursor bodies originate from the oocyte, while most proteins engaged in the formation of mature nucleoli should be transcribed from genes de novo in the donor nucleus at the time of EGA. Thus, the success of nucleoli formation depends on species compatibility of many components of this complex process. We demonstrate that the time and cell stage of nucleoli formation are under the control of recipient ooplasm. Oocytes of the studied species possess different abilities to support nucleoli formation. Formation of nucleoli, which is a complex but small part of the whole process of EGA, is essential but not absolutely sufficient for the development of iSCNT embryos to the morula and BL stages.

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Irina Lagutina, Helena Fulka, Tiziana A L Brevini, Stefania Antonini, Dario Brunetti, Silvia Colleoni, Fulvio Gandolfi, Giovanna Lazzari, Josef Fulka Jr, and Cesare Galli

The best results of inter-species somatic cell nuclear transfer (iSCNT) in mammals were obtained using closely related species that can hybridise naturally. However, in the last years, many reports describing blastocyst development following iSCNT between species with distant taxonomical relations (inter-classes, inter-order and inter-family) have been published. This indicates that embryonic genome activation (EGA) in xeno-cytoplasm is possible, albeit very rarely. Using a bovine–pig (inter-family) iSCNT model, we studied the basic characteristics of EGA: expression and activity of RNA polymerase II (RNA Pol II), formation of nucleoli (as an indicator of RNA polymerase I (RNA Pol I) activity), expression of the key pluripotency gene NANOG and alteration of mitochondrial mass. In control embryos (obtained by IVF or iSCNT), EGA was characterised by RNA Pol II accumulation and massive production of poly-adenylated transcripts (detected with oligo dT probes) in blastomere nuclei, and formation of nucleoli as a result of RNA Pol I activity. Conversely, iSCNT embryos were characterised by the absence of accumulation and low activity of RNA Pol II and inability to form active mature nucleoli. Moreover, in iSCNT embryos, NANOG was not expressed, and mitochondria mass was significantly lower than in intra-species embryos. Finally, the complete developmental block at the 16–25-cell stage for pig–bovine iSCNT embryos and at the four-cell stage for bovine–pig iSCNT embryos strongly suggests that EGA is not taking place in iSCNT embryos. Thus, our experiments clearly demonstrate poor nucleus–cytoplasm compatibility between these animal species.

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Pasqualino Loi, Luca Palazzese, Pier Augusto Scapolo, Josef Fulka Jr, Helena Fulka, and Marta Czernik

The birth of Dolly through somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) was a major scientific breakthrough of the last century. Yet, while significant progress has been achieved across the technics required to reconstruct and in vitro culture nuclear transfer embryos, SCNT outcomes in terms of offspring production rates are still limited. Here, we provide a snapshot of the practical application of SCNT in farm animals and pets. Moreover, we suggest a path to improve SCNT through alternative strategies inspired by the physiological reprogramming in male and female gametes in preparation for the totipotency required after fertilization. Almost all papers on SCNT focused on nuclear reprogramming in the somatic cells after nuclear transfer. We believe that this is misleading, and even if it works sometimes, it does so in an uncontrolled way. Physiologically, the oocyte cytoplasm deploys nuclear reprogramming machinery specifically designed to address the male chromosome, the maternal alleles are prepared for totipotency earlier, during oocyte nuclear maturation. Significant advances have been made in remodeling somatic nuclei in vitro through the expression of protamines, thanks to a plethora of data available on spermatozoa epigenetic modifications. Missing are the data on large-scale nuclear reprogramming of the oocyte chromosomes. The main message our article conveys is that the next generation nuclear reprogramming strategies should be guided by insights from in-depth studies on epigenetic modifications in the gametes in preparation for fertilization.