Reliable estimation and improvement of the developmental potential of in vitro production (IVP) embryos requires functional criteria of embryo quality. Antiapoptotic and mitogenic effects of insulin-like growth factor I (IGF-I), applied during bovine IVP, were studied. Day 6.5 blastocysts were fixed and processed for TUNEL to detect apoptotic cells, for immunocytochemical detection of proliferating cell nuclear antigen (PCNA), and for propidium iodide (PI) staining to detect all nuclei. Laser scanning confocal microscopy was used to determine apoptotic (TUNEL/PI) and proliferative (PCNA/PI) indices. Addition of IGF-I to the culture but not to the maturation medium increased the morula/blastocyst yield (P = 0.03), but the cleavage rate was not affected. During culture, IGF-I significantly lowered the apoptotic index by decreasing the number of apoptotic cells per embryo and elevated the total cell number of the blastocysts. The frequency of blastocysts with apoptotic cells was not affected. IGF-I increased the proportion of blastocysts with apoptotic cells in the inner cell mass area only by reducing apoptosis in the trophectoderm area. The PCNA index was not affected by IGF-I. A positive correlation observed between apoptotic and PCNA-positive cells was significant in groups stimulated with IGF-I during in vitro culture. Of TUNEL-positive cells, 30%–40% per embryo were also positive for PCNA. This colocalization may indirectly suggest an activation of DNA repair process in TUNEL-positive cells in response to DNA fragmentation. IGF-I reduces apoptosis in bovine IVP embryos. The requirement of IGF-I is more critical during embryo culture than during oocyte maturation. Our data suggest that an assay for TUNEL in conjunction with cell proliferation analysis can provide useful information about the quality of IVP embryos.
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