Summary. To examine the effects of somatic cell support on the cleavage and viability of fertilized sheep eggs, 434 pronucleate eggs were co-cultured for 3 or 6 days on oviduct cells or fibroblasts and 77 eggs were cultured in medium alone. During the first 3 days in culture 95% of the single-celled eggs cleaved regularly to non-compacted morulae on either of the feeder-layers but only 13% underwent similar regular cleavage in medium alone. Despite the identical cleavage rates in the co-culture groups, only 33% of embryos grown on fibroblasts as compared with 80% of embryos grown on oviduct cells were fully viable as judged by their ability to develop normally after transfer to recipient animals. The viability of embryos in the oviduct group was equal to that obtained after the direct transfer of morulae from donor to recipient sheep.
After 6 days in culture 42% of embryos co-cultured with oviduct cells developed into expanded blastocysts as compared with only 4·5% cultured on fibroblasts. In both co-culture groups virtually all the remaining embryos blocked during the 4th cleavage. When transferred, 30% of blastocysts grown from the pronucleate stage on oviduct cells were viable.
We conclude that: (1) during the first 3 days after fertilization cleavage will progress at a normal rate on different feeder-layers but oviduct cells appear to be required for the acquisition of full embryonic viability; (2) in our system oviduct cells are able to support passage of embryos through the critical 4th cell cycle, whilst fibroblasts are almost entirely unable to support this critical phase; and (3) it is apparent that the factors necessary for the morphological formation of the blastocyst may be insufficient or different from those which endow it with subsequent developmental ability.