The postimplantation developmental potential of embryos can be affected by various forms of cell death, such as apoptosis, at preimplantation stages. However, correct assessment of apoptosis is needed for adequate inference of the developmental significance of this process. This study is the first to investigate the independent chronological occurrence of apoptotic changes in nuclear morphology and DNA degradation (detected by the TUNEL reaction) and incidences of nuclei displaying these features at various preimplantation stages of bovine embryos produced both in vivo and in vitro. Different elements of apoptosis were observed at various developmental stages and appeared to be differentially affected by in vitro production. Nuclear condensation was observed from the 6-cell stage in vitro and the 8-cell stage in vivo, whereas the TUNEL reaction was first observed at the 6-cell stage in vitro and the 21-cell stage in vivo. Morphological signs of other forms of cell death were also observed in normally developing embryos produced both in vivo and in vitro. The onset of apoptosis seems to be developmentally regulated in a stage-specific manner, but discrete features of the apoptotic process may be differentially regulated and independently modulated by the mode of embryo production. Significant differences in indices of various apoptotic features were not evident between in vivo- and in vitro-produced embryos at the morula stage, but such differences could be observed at the blastocyst stage, where in vitro production was associated with a higher degree of apoptosis in the inner cell mass.
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