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S L Rodriguez-Zas, K Schellander, and H A Lewin

The characterization of gene-expression profiles in oocytes and embryos is critical to understand the influence of genetic and environmental factors on preimplantation and fetal development. Numerous gene-expression microarray studies using different platforms and species are offering insights into the biological processes extensively represented among the genes exhibiting differential expression. Major advances on understanding the direct relationship between gene expression and developmental competence are being reported. Integration of information across studies using meta-analysis techniques can increase the precision and accuracy to identify expression profiles associated with embryo development. Gene network and pathway analyses are offering insights into gene interactions and expression profiles of embryos. All these advances are cementing the way toward a comparative and systems approach to understanding the complex processes underlying vertebrate development.

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P Hyttel, D Viuff, T Fair, J Laurincik, PD Thomsen, H Callesen, PL Vos, PJ Hendriksen, SJ Dieleman, K Schellander, U Besenfelder, and T Greve

This review focuses on the key features of development of the bovine oocyte and embryo, with comparisons of the developmental characteristics of embryos produced in vivo and in vitro. The oocyte is transcriptionally quiescent in the primordial and primary follicle. In the secondary follicle transcription is initiated in the oocyte and a ribosome-synthesizing nucleolus is established in this cell. Transcription and nucleolar activity are enhanced in the tertiary follicle during oocyte growth. When the oocyte reaches approximately 110 microm in diameter, corresponding to a follicle of about 3 mm in diameter, transcription ceases and the nucleolus is inactivated, forming a dense spherical remnant. During the final phase of follicular dominance this remnant becomes vacuolated and, in conjunction with resumption of meiosis, it disperses. The rRNA genes are apparently re-activated during the four-cell stage, that is, the third cell cycle after fertilization, but a nucleolus is not formed. During the subsequent cell cycle, that is, during the eight-cell stage, ribosome-synthesizing nucleoli are again established. Bovine embryos produced in vitro apparently display the same pattern of nucleolus development as that in embryos developed in vivo. Examination of the ploidy of embryonic cells using fluorescence in situ hybridization has revealed that the production of bovine embryos in vitro is associated with increased chromosome aberrations in the embryos. Blastocysts produced in vitro display a significantly higher rate of mixoploidy, that is, when the embryo consists of both normal diploid and abnormal polyploid cells, than that in embryos developed in vivo. The rate of mixoploidy among embryos produced in vitro increases with increasing developmental stage. Moreover, after fertilization in vitro, initially there is a high rate of 'true' polyploidy, that is, when all cells of the embryos are polyploid. However, the polyploid embryos are eliminated before they cleave beyond the eight-cell stage, the stage at which major activation of the embryonic genome occurs in cattle.

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N Ghanem, D Salilew-Wondim, A Gad, D Tesfaye, C Phatsara, E Tholen, C Looft, K Schellander, and M Hoelker

This study was conducted to investigate the gene expression profile of in vivo-derived bovine embryo biopsies based on pregnancy outcomes after transferring to recipients. For this, biopsies of 30–40% embryos were taken from grade I blastocysts (International Embryo Transfer Society Manual) and the remaining 60–70% of the intact embryos were transferred to recipients. Frozen biopsies were pooled into three distinct groups based on the pregnancy outcome after transferring the corresponding parts, namely those resulting in no pregnancy (NP), pregnancy loss (PL), and calf delivery (CD). Array analysis revealed a total of 41 and 43 genes to be differentially expressed between biopsies derived from blastocysts resulting in NP versus CD and PL versus CD respectively. Genes regulating placental development and embryo maternal interaction (PLAC8) were found to be upregulated in embryo biopsies that ended up with CD. Embryo biopsies that failed to induce pregnancy were enriched with mitochondrial transcripts (Fl405) and stress-related genes (HSPD1). Overall, gene expression profiles of blastocysts resulting in NP and CD shared similar expression profiles with respect to genes playing significant roles in preimplantation development of embryo. Finally, comparing the transcript signatures of in vivo- and in vitro-derived embryos with developmental competence to term revealed a similarity in the relative abundance of 18 genes. Therefore, we were able to present a genetic signature associated with term developmental competence independent of the environmental origin of the transferred blastocysts.

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M Koester, A Mohammadi-Sangcheshmeh, M Montag, F Rings, T Schimming, D Tesfaye, K Schellander, and M Hoelker

It has previously been demonstrated that zona pellucida imaging of human oocytes using polarized light microscopy is a clinically applicable method for the noninvasive assessment of oocyte quality. This study was designed to investigate whether zona pellucida characteristics of bovine oocytes and zygotes in polarized light may similarly serve as a useful marker for developmental competence in bovine reproductive biotechnologies. Zona birefringence intensity parameters of 2862 oocytes/zygotes were objectively evaluated with an automatic analysis system and correlated with oocyte/zygote quality. In detail, immature oocytes of good quality assessed with brilliant cresyl blue staining showed significantly lower zona birefringence than poor-quality counterparts (P<0.001). After in vitro maturation and classification according to maturational status, the birefringence intensity parameters were significantly different in those oocytes that reached metaphase II compared with arrested stages (P<0.001). Following either parthenogenetic activation or IVF with subsequent in vitro culture in a well-of-the-well system until day 9, superior development as determined by cleavage, blastocyst formation, and hatching ability was associated with lower zona birefringence intensity parameters. When early zygote-stage embryos were selected and assorted in groups based on zona birefringence (high/medium/low), the group of embryos derived from high-birefringence zygotes displayed a significantly compromised developmental potential compared with low-birefringence zygotes. These results clearly show that developmentally competent bovine oocytes/zygotes exhibit lower zona birefringence intensity parameters. Therefore, birefringence imaging of zona pellucida is a suitable technique to predict bovine preimplantation embryo development.

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D Tesfaye, A Regassa, F Rings, N Ghanem, C Phatsara, E Tholen, R Herwig, C Un, K Schellander, and M Hoelker

This study was conducted to investigate the effect of suppressing transcription factor gene MSX1 on the development of in vitro produced bovine oocytes and embryos, and identify its potential target genes regulated by this gene. Injection of long double-stranded RNA (LdsRNA) and small interfering RNA (siRNA) at germinal vesicle stage oocyte reduced MSX1 mRNA expression by 73 and 37% respectively at metaphase II stage compared with non-injected controls. Similarly, injection of the same anti-sense oligomers at zygote stage reduced MSX1 mRNA expression by 52 and 33% at 8-cell stage compared with non-injected controls. Protein expression was also reduced in LdsRNA- and siRNA-injected groups compared with non-injected controls at both stages. Blastocysts rates were 33, 28, 20 and 18% in non-injected control, scrambled RNA (scRNA), LdsRNA- and siRNA-injected groups respectively. Cleavage rates were also significantly reduced in Smartpool siRNA (SpsiRNA)-injected group (53.76%) compared with scRNA-injected group (57.76%) and non-injected control group (61%). Large-scale gene expression analysis showed that 135 genes were differentially regulated in SpsiRNA-injected group compared with non-injected controls, of which 54 and 81 were down- and up-regulated respectively due to suppression of MSX1. Additionally, sequence homology mapping and gene enrichment analysis with known human pathway information identified several functional modules that were affected due to suppression of MSX1. In conclusion, suppression of MSX1 affects oocyte maturation, embryo cleavage rate and the expression of several genes, suggesting its potential role in the development of bovine preimplantation embryos.