Abstract

Oxidative stress is involved in the aetiology of defective embryo development. Reactive oxygen species (ROS) may originate from embryo metabolism and/or embryo surroundings. Embryo metabolism generates ROS via several enzymatic mechanisms. The relative contribution of each source seems different depending on the species, the stage of development, and the culture conditions. Several exogenous factors and culture conditions can enhance the production of ROS by embryos. ROS can alter most types of cellular molecules, and also induce development block and retardation. Multiple mechanisms of embryo protection against ROS exist, and these have complementary actions. External protection, present in follicular and tubal fluids, mainly comprises non-enzymatic antioxidants such as hypotaurine, taurine and ascorbic acid. Internal protection mainly comprises antioxidant enzymes: superoxide dismutase, glutathione peroxidase and γ-glutamylcysteine synthetase. Transcripts encoding for these enzymes are present in the oocyte, embryo and oviduct. It may be important that these transcripts are stored during oocyte maturation in order to allow the embryo to acquire the aptitude to develop. It is now common to add antioxidant compounds to culture media. Nevertheless, maintaining the pro-oxidant–antioxidant equilibrium in embryos through such supplementation is a complex problem. Further studies are necessary to limit oxidative stress during embryo culture.