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P Maddox-Hyttel, NI Alexopoulos, G Vajta, I Lewis, P Rogers, L Cann, H Callesen, P Tveden-Nyborg, and A Trounson

The problems of sustaining placenta formation in embryos produced by nuclear transfer have emphasized the need for basic knowledge about epiblast formation and gastrulation in bovine embryos. The aims of this study were to define stages of bovine post-hatching embryonic development and to analyse functional mechanisms of germ-layer formation. Embryos developed in vivo were collected after slaughter from superovulated cows on days 9, 11, 14 and 21 after insemination and processed for transmission electron microscopy (n = 26) or immunohistochemistry (n = 27) for potential germ-layer characterization (cytokeratin 8 for potential ectoderm; alpha-1-fetoprotein for potential endoderm; and vimentin for potential mesoderm). On day 9, the embryos were devoid of zona pellucida and presented a well-defined inner cell mass (ICM), which was covered by a thin layer of trophoblast cells (the Rauber's layer). Formation of the hypoblast from the inside of the ICM was ongoing. On day 11, the Rauber's layer was focally interrupted and adjacent underlying ICM cells formed tight junctions. The hypoblast, which formed a thin confluent cell layer, was separated from the ICM and the tropho-blast by intercellular matrix. The embryos were ovoid to tubular and displayed a confluent hypoblast on day 14. The epiblast was inserted into the trophoblast epithelium and tight junctions and desmosomes were present between adjacent epiblast cells as well as between peripheral epiblast and trophoblast cells. In some embryos, the epiblast was more or less covered by foldings of trophoblast in the process of forming the amniotic cavity. Cytokeratin 8 was localized to the trophoblast and the hypoblast underlying the epiblast; alpha-1-fetoprotein was localized to most hypoblast cells underlying the trophoblast; and vimentin was localized to most epiblast cells. On day 21, the smallest embryos displayed a primitive streak and formation of the neural groove, whereas the largest embryos presented a neural tube, up to 14 somites and allantois development. These embryos depicted the gradual formation of the endoderm, mesoderm and ectoderm as well as differentiation of paraxial, intermediate and lateral plate mesoderm. Cytokeratin 8 was localized to the trophoblast, the hypoblast and the surface and neural ectoderm; and alpha-1-fetoprotein was localized to the hypoblast, but not the definitive endoderm, the intensity increasing with development. Vimentin was initially localized to some, but not all, cells positioned particularly in the ventral region of the primitive streak, to presumptive definitive endoderm cells inserted into the hypoblast, and to mesoderm. In conclusion, within 2 weeks of hatching, bovine embryos complete formation of the hypoblast and the epiblast, establishment of the amniotic cavity, ingression of epiblast cells for primitive streak formation, involution of cells through the node and the streak for endoderm and mesoderm fomation, neurulation and differentiation of the mesoderm. The recruitment of cells from the epiblast to form the primitive streak as well as the endoderm and mesoderm is associated with expression of the intermediate filament vimentin.

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Irradiation of two-cell mouse embryos inhibits the differentiation of the blastocyst. If morulae are irradiated, blastocyst formation occurs normally, but the embryos fail to hatch and become cytolytic in the zona pellucida.

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J. P. Ozil

Summary. Day-8 embryos were recovered by a non-surgical method from superovulated crossbred heifers. Normal expanded blastocysts with a distinct inner cell mass and a trophoblast were released from the zona pellucida and bisected along a sagittal plane into two 'half' blastocysts. Each 'half' blastocyst was replaced in an empty zona pellucida and cultured for 2 h in B2 medium. After culture the 'half' blastocysts were directly transferred to recipient heifers via the cervix. From 11 blastocysts, 11 monozygotic 'half' blastocyst pairs were transferred to 11 recipients: 8 recipients became pregnant, 4 carried twins and one delivered a normal calf and an acardiacus amorphus monster consisting of disorganized embryonic tissues. A further 11 'half' blastocysts were transferred as singletons to 11 recipients. Five recipients were apparently pregnant at Day 42. One returned to oestrus at Day 45, 3 were carrying normal fetuses and 1 a pair of normal twin fetuses when slaughtered at Day 128.

It is concluded that even after the first irreversible cellular differentiation which occurs at the blastocyst stage it is still possible to produce identical cattle twins by bisection of the Day-8 blastocyst.

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Ann C. McRae and R. B. Church

Summary. A scoring scheme was devised to characterize visually the morphological differentiation of whole-mount, unfixed mouse blastocysts. Embryos were recovered from groups of intact mice (implanting embryos) and mice ovariectomized on Day 3 of pregnancy (implantation-delayed embryos) every 3 h from 18:00 h on Day 4 until 12:00 h on Day 5. Blastocyst differentiation was assessed according to the presence of a zona pellucida, the appearance of the outer margin of trophectoderm cells, the visibility of the blastocoele and the relative size of the inner cell mass. The results obtained indicate that, during this period, implanting and implantation-delayed mouse blastocysts lose the zona as well as exhibit rounded trophectoderm cells, an enlarged inner cell mass and an increasing opacity of the blastocoele. In contrast, the trophectoderm cells of implanting blastocysts only exhibit extensive cytoplasmic projections, probably due to remodelling of the intracellular cytoskeleton. Growth of the inner cell mass appeared to precede the other morphological changes in the majority of blastocysts, and thus might be a prerequisite for further differentiation. The rate of blastocyst differentiation and the survival of embryos were adversely affected by the condition of delayed implantation, induced by ovariectomy. This study suggests that the appearance of cytoplasmic projections from trophectoderm cells is central to the control of blastocyst implantation.

Keywords: blastocyst; morphology; trophectoderm; implantation; mouse

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Wei Cui, Chelsea Marcho, Yongsheng Wang, Rinat Degani, Morgane Golan, Kimberly D Tremblay, Jaime A Rivera-Pérez, and Jesse Mager

Mediator is an evolutionarily conserved multi-subunit complex, bridging transcriptional activators and repressors to the general RNA polymerase II (Pol II) initiation machinery. Though the Mediator complex is crucial for the transcription of almost all Pol II promoters in eukaryotic organisms, the phenotypes of individual Mediator subunit mutants are each distinct. Here, we report for the first time, the essential role of subunit MED20 in early mammalian embryo development. Although Med20 mutant mouse embryos exhibit normal morphology at E3.5 blastocyst stage, they cannot be recovered at early post-gastrulation stages. Outgrowth assays show that mutant blastocysts cannot hatch from the zona pellucida, indicating impaired blastocyst function. Assessments of cell death and cell lineage specification reveal that apoptosis, inner cell mass, trophectoderm and primitive endoderm markers are normal in mutant blastocysts. However, the epiblast marker NANOG is ectopically expressed in the trophectoderm of Med20 mutants, indicative of defects in trophoblast specification. These results suggest that MED20 specifically, and the Mediator complex in general, are essential for the earliest steps of mammalian development and cell lineage specification.

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Thomas E Spencer, Greg A Johnson, Fuller W Bazer, and Robert C Burghardt

Implantation in all mammals involves shedding of the zona pellucida, followed by orientation, apposition, attachment and adhesion of the blastocyst to the endometrium. Endometrial invasion does not occur in domestic ruminants; thus, definitive implantation is achieved by adhesion of the mononuclear trophoblast cells to the endometrial lumenal epithelium (LE) and formation of syncytia by the fusion of trophoblast binucleate cells with the LE. This review highlights new information on mechanisms regulating the implantation cascade in sheep. The embryo enters the uterus on day 4 at the morula stage of development and then develops into a blastocyst by day 6. The blastocyst sheds the zona pellucida (day 8), elongates to a filamentous form (days 11–16), and adheres to the endometrial LE (day 16). Between days 14 and 16, the binucleate cells begin to differentiate in the trophoblast and subsequently migrate and fuse with the endometrial LE to form syncytia. Continuous exposure of the endometrium to progesterone in early pregnancy downregulates the progesterone receptors in the epithelia, a process which is associated with loss of the cell-surface mucin MUC1 and induction of several secreted adhesion proteins. Recurrent early pregnancy loss in the uterine gland knockout ewe model indicates that secretions of the endometrial epithelia have a physiologic role in blastocyst elongation and implantation. A number of endometrial proteins have been identified as potential regulators of blastocyst development and implantation in sheep, including glycosylated cell adhesion molecule 1 (GlyCAM-1), galectin-15, integrins and osteopontin. The epithelial derived secreted adhesion proteins (GlyCAM-1, galectin-15 and osteopontin) are expressed in a dynamic temporal and spatial manner and regulated by progesterone and/or interferon tau, which is the pregnancy recognition signal produced by the trophoblast during blastocyst elongation. The noninvasive and protracted nature of implantation in domestic animals provides valuable opportunities to investigate fundamental processes of implantation that are shared among all mammals. Understanding of the cellular and molecular signals that regulate uterine receptivity and implantation can be used to diagnose and identify causes of recurrent pregnancy loss and to improve pregnancy outcome in domestic animals and humans.

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Rodney D Geisert, Ashley E Meyer, Caroline A Pfeiffer, Destiny N Johns, Kiho Lee, Kevin D Wells, Thomas E Spencer, and Randall S Prather

Development of viviparity in mammals requires that the placenta evolves as an intermediate interface between the fetus and maternal uterus. In addition to the retention of the fetus and secretion of nutrients to support growth and development to term, it is essential that viviparous species modify or inhibit the maternal immune system from recognizing the semi-allogeneic fetus. Following blastocyst hatching from its zona pellucida, trophoblast differentiation provides the initial communication to the maternal endometrium to regulate maintenance of progesterone production from the corpus luteum and biological pathways in uterine and conceptus development necessary in the establishment and maintenance of pregnancy. Many conceptus factors have been proposed to serve in the establishment and maintenance of pregnancy. CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology provides a specific and efficient method to generate animal models to perform loss-of-function studies to investigate the role of specific conceptus factors. The utilization of CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing has provided a direct approach to investigate the specific role of conceptus factors in the development and establishment of pregnancy in the pig. This technology has helped address a number of questions concerning peri-implantation development and has altered our understanding of maternal recognition and maintenance of pregnancy in the pig.

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A. C. Enders, K. C. Lantz, I. K. M. Liu, and S. Schlafke

Summary. Twelve blastocysts, collected 7–12 days after ovulation (Day 0), were examined by light and electron microscopy to investigate the nature of the relationship of the polar trophoblast (Rauber's layer) to the inner cell mass. On Day 7, the polar trophoblast was intact and formed a flattened layer overlying the epiblast cells of the inner cell mass. As blastocysts enlarged to > 1 mm in diameter, small discontinuities appeared in the polar trophoblast, where epiblast cells intruded onto the surface. At this time, trophoblast cells adhered closely to adjacent and underlying epiblast cells, forming an irregular layer of cells capping the epiblast. With continued increase in blastocyst size, polar trophoblast cells became isolated but maintained their characteristic apical endocytic structures. By Days 10–12, the scattered trophoblast cells showed evidence of deterioration, and vacuoles containing cell debris were common within the epiblast.

It is suggested that polar trophoblast cells become scattered, rather than withdrawing as a unit, because they become more adherent to subjacent epiblast cells than to adjacent trophoblast cells. It is further suggested that most of the isolated cells are eventually phagocytosed by epiblast cells.

Keywords: horse; blastocyst; trophoblast; differentiation; inner cell mass

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LeAnn Blomberg, Kazuyoshi Hashizume, and Christoph Viebahn

The molecular basis of ungulate and non-rodent conceptus elongation and gastrulation remains poorly understood; however, use of state-of-the-art genomic technologies is beginning to elucidate the mechanisms regulating these complicated processes. For instance, transcriptome analysis of elongating porcine concepti indicates that protein synthesis and trafficking, cell growth and proliferation, and cellular morphology are major regulated processes. Furthermore, potential autocrine roles of estrogen and interleukin-1-β in regulating porcine conceptus growth and remodeling and metabolism have become evident. The importance of estrogen in pig is emphasized by the altered expression of essential steroidogenic and trophoblast factors in lagging ovoid concepti. In ruminants, the characteristic mononucleate trophoblast cells differentiate into a second lineage important for implantation, the binucleate trophoblast, and transcriptome profiling of bovine concepti has revealed a gene cluster associated with rapid trophoblast proliferation and differentiation. Gene cluster analysis has also provided evidence of correlated spatiotemporal expression and emphasized the significance of the bovine trophoblast cell lineage and the regulatory mechanism of trophoblast function. As a part of the gastrulation process in the mammalian conceptus, specification of the germ layers and hence definitive body axes occur in advance of primitive streak formation. Processing of the transforming growth factor-β-signaling molecules nodal and BMP4 by specific proteases is emerging as a decisive step in the initial patterning of the pre-gastrulation embryo. The topography of expression of these and other secreted molecules with reference to embryonic and extraembryonic tissues determines their local interaction potential. Their ensuing signaling leads to the specification of axial epiblast and hypoblast compartments through cellular migration and differentiation and, in particular, the specification of the early germ layer tissues in the epiblast via gene expression characteristic of endoderm and mesoderm precursor cells.

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Implantation of the blastocyst marks the onset of an intimate association between the mother and embryo which makes the peri-implantation stages particularly inaccessible to investigation. Although extensive studies have now been carried out on the pre-implantation and, to some extent, the post-implantation stages in vitro, little is known of the requirements for growth and differentiation during the implantation period. Such information, and the ability to culture embryos through the implantation stage, would be useful in the evaluation of events at this time.

In the media commonly employed for the culture of preimplantation mouse embryos, which consist of a balanced salt solution (BSS) supplemented with bovine serum albumin (BSA) and energy sources, development normally proceeds to the expanded-blastocyst stage. At this time the blastocyst may hatch from its zona pellucida and remain free-floating in an apparently arrested condition