The degree of fragmentation during early cleavage is universally used as an indicator of embryo quality during human in vitro fertilization treatment. Extensive fragmentation has been associated with reduced blastocyst formation and implantation. We examined the relationship between early fragmentation and subsequent allocation of cells to the trophectoderm and inner cell mass in the human blastocyst. We retrospectively analyzed data from 363 monospermic human embryos that exhibited varying degrees of fragmentation on Day 2. Embryos were cultured from Day 2 to Day 6 in Earle balanced salt solution with 1 mM glucose and human serum albumin. Rates of development and blastocyst formation were measured. The number of cells in the trophectoderm and inner cell mass and the incidence of apoptosis were assessed following differential labeling with polynucleotide-specific fluorochromes. Increasing fragmentation resulted in reduced blastocyst formation and lower blastocyst cell numbers. For minimal and moderate levels of fragmentation, the reduction in cell numbers was confined largely to the trophectoderm and a steady number of inner cell mass cells was maintained. However, with extensive fragmentation of more than 25%, cell numbers in both lineages were reduced in the few embryos that formed blastocysts. Apoptotic nuclei were present in both the trophectoderm and inner cell mass, with the lowest incidence in blastocysts that had developed from embryos with minor (5–10%) fragmentation. Paradoxically, higher levels of apoptosis were seen in embryos of excellent morphology, suggesting a possible role in regulation of cell number.
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