Early embryonic cleavages are mostly regulated by maternal components then control of development progressively depends on newly synthesized zygotic products. The timing of the first cleavages is a way to assess embryo quality. The goal of this study was to evaluate the duration of the fourth cell cycle, at the time of maternal-to-zygotic transition (MZT) in in vitro-produced bovine embryos by means of cinematographic analysis. We found that 75% of the embryos displayed a long fourth cycle (43.5 ± 5.4 h) whereas the remaining embryos had a very short fourth cell cycle (8.9 ± 2.9 h). Both groups did not differ in cleavage rhythm up to the eight-cell stage and timing of cavitation and blastocyst expansion was identical. However, embryos with a short fourth cell cycle had a better blastocyst rate than embryos with a long cycle (59% versus 38%, P < 0.01). Total cell number, inner cell mass (ICM):total cell ratio, and hatching rate were identical for blastocysts produced from embryos with either a long or a short fourth cell cycle. In a second experiment, we showed that increasing the oxygen tension, from 5% to 20%, decreased the percentage of embryos with a short fourth cell cycle, from 25% to 11% (P < 0.01), indicating that suboptimal culture conditions can influence the length of this cycle. Finally, we investigated whether fourth cell cycle duration could be influenced by transcription inhibition. With alpha-amanitin added at 18 h postinsemination (HPI), cleavage was reduced (66% versus 79%) and, at 70 HPI, the 9- to 16-cell rate increased (50% versus 25%) concomitantly with a 5- to 8-cell rate decrease (16% versus 47%). A similar pattern was observed when the drug was added at 6 HPI or 42 HPI but not at 0 HPI. Cinematographic analysis revealed that alpha-amanitin increased the first cell cycle duration whereas the second and third cell cycles were not affected. With the drug, one third of the embryos could develop up to the 9- to 16-cell stage and they all had a short fourth cell cycle (11.2 ± 3.7 h) with a good synchrony of cleavage between blastomeres. These results suggest that duration of the fourth cell cycle of bovine embryo, during the MZT, is under a zygotic transcriptional control that can be affected by oxidative conditions.
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