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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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Helena Fulka, Pasqualino Loi, Marta Czernik, Azim Surani, and Josef Fulka

In brief

Understanding the establishment of post-fertilization totipotency has broad implications for modern biotechnologies. This review summarizes the current knowledge of putative egg components governing this process following natural fertilization and after somatic cell nuclear transfer.


The mammalian oocyte is a unique cell, and comprehending its physiology and biology is essential for understanding fertilization, totipotency and early events of embryogenesis. Consequently, research in these areas influences the outcomes of various technologies, for example, the production and conservation of laboratory and large animals with rare and valuable genotypes, the rescue of the species near extinction, as well as success in human assisted reproduction. Nevertheless, even the most advanced and sophisticated reproductive technologies of today do not always guarantee a favorable outcome. Elucidating the interactions of oocyte components with its natural partner cell – the sperm or an ‘unnatural’ somatic nucleus, when the somatic cell nucleus transfer is used is essential for understanding how totipotency is established and thus defining the requirements for normal development. One of the crucial aspects is the stoichiometry of different reprogramming and remodeling factors present in the oocyte and their balance. Here, we discuss how these factors, in combination, may lead to the formation of a new organism. We focus on the laboratory mouse and its genetic models, as this species has been instrumental in shaping our understanding of early post-fertilization events.

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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.

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Paola Toschi, Emanuele Capra, Debora A Anzalone, Barbara Lazzari, Federica Turri, Flavia Pizzi, Pier A Scapolo, Alessandra Stella, John L Williams, Paolo Ajmone Marsan, and Pasqualino Loi

The genotype of an organism is stable throughout its life; however, its epigenome is dynamic and can be altered in response to environmental factors, such as diet. Inheritance of acquired epigenetic modifications by the next generation occurs through the germline, although the precise mechanisms remain to be elucidated. Here, we used a sheep model to evaluate if modification of the maternal diet (CTR; control, UND: undernutrition; FA: undernutrition and folic acid supplementation) during the peri-conceptional period affects the genome-wide methylation status of the gametes of male offspring. Sperm DNA methylation, measured by Reduced Representation Bisulfite Sequencing (RRBS), identified Differentially Methylated Regions (DMR) in offspring that experienced in utero undernutrition, both in UND (244) and FA (240), compared with CTR. Gene ontology (GO) analysis identified DMRs in categories related to sperm function, therefore we investigated whether the fertilizing capacity of the semen from the three groups differed in an in vitro fertilization assay. Spermatozoa from the undernourished groups showed lower motility and sperm chromatin structure abnormalities, represented by a higher percentage of DNA fragmentation and an increased number of immature cells, compared with CTR. While good quality blastocysts were obtained from all three groups, the proportion of embryos reaching the blastocyst stage was reduced in the UND vs CTR, an effect partially rescued by the FA treatment. The data reported here show that nutritional stress during early pregnancy leads to epigenetic modifications in the semen of the resulting offspring, the effects of which in next generation remain to be elucidated.