The number of children born since the origin of Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ART) exceeds 5 million. The majority seem healthy, but a higher frequency of defects has been reported among ART-conceived infants, suggesting an epigenetic cost. We report the first whole-genome DNA methylation datasets from single pig blastocysts showing differences between in vivo and in vitro produced embryos. Blastocysts were produced in vitro either without (C-IVF) or in the presence of natural reproductive fluids (Natur-IVF). Natur-IVF embryos were of higher quality than C-IVF in terms of cell number and hatching ability. RNA-Seq and DNA methylation analyses showed that Natur-IVF embryos have expression and methylation patterns closer to in vivo blastocysts. Genes involved in reprogramming, imprinting and development were affected by culture, with fewer aberrations in Natur-IVF embryos. Methylation analysis detected methylated changes in C-IVF, but not in Natur-IVF, at genes whose methylation could be critical, such as IGF2R and NNAT.Infertility has become more common in many countries, particularly those where many people delay having children until later in life. To help individuals experiencing infertility conceive a child, scientists have developed treatments called assisted reproductive technologies (or ARTs for short). So far, more than 5 million children have been born with the help of these treatments. Most of the children seem healthy; however, birth defects are more common in ART-conceived babies than those conceived without treatment.The cause of these birth defects is not known, though scientists suspect it may have something to do with techniques used in ART. One possible culprit is the liquid that is used in the laboratory to help the parents’ sperm and egg come together for fertilization. This same liquid is also used to bathe the developing embryo for the first few days after fertilization before it is implanted into its mother’s womb. Some scientists wonder whether adding the fluids normally found in the reproductive tract of their mother to this liquid could reduce defects in children conceived via ART.Now, Canovas et al. have shown that fertilizing and growing pig embryos in liquids supplemented with fluid from the wombs of female pigs results in embryos that are closer to naturally conceived pig embryos than in non-supplemented liquids. In the experiments, naturally conceived embryos were compared to ART embryos exposed to the usual liquids and with ART embryos grown in liquids with fluid collected from the pig’s reproductive tract added. Cutting edge technologies were used to sequence the entire genomes of all of the embryos and compare which genes were active in each case. Canovas et al. also looked at chemical markers on the DNA – called epigenetic changes – that turn on or off the expression of genes without changing the DNA code itself.The analysis showed that ART-conceived embryos grown in the usual liquid had different patterns of gene expression and epigenetic changes compared to naturally conceived embryos. Gene expression and epigenetic changes in the ART embryos grown with the pig reproductive fluid was more similar to the naturally conceived embryos.These findings suggest that abnormal gene expression in the ART-liquid exposed embryos may lead to birth defects, and that using natural reproductive fluids may be safer. To confirm this, scientists will have to implant embryos conceived in these three different conditions into mother pigs and assess the health and gene expression patterns of the resulting piglets. If successful, these new insights might one day lead to improvements in ART techniques used to treat infertility in people.
Canovas, S., Ivanova, E., Romar, R., García-Martínez, S., Soriano-Úbeda, C., García-Vázquez, F. A., … Coy, P. (2017). DNA methylation and gene expression changes derived from assisted reproductive technologies can be decreased by reproductive fluids. ELife, 6. https://doi.org/10.7554/elife.23670