Over the past 30 years, basic and applied studies on classical and advanced embryo technologies have generated a vast literature on factors regulating oocyte and embryo development and quality. In addition, over this period, commercial bovine embryo transfer has become a large international business. It is well recognised that bovine embryos derived in vivo are of superior quality to those derived from in vitro maturation, fertilization and culture. Relatively little has changed in the techniques of producing embryos in vivo although there is increasing evidence of the importance of, for example, peripheral and follicular endocrine profiles for the subsequent developmental competence of the embryo. The in vitro production of ruminant embryos is a three-step process involving oocyte maturation, oocyte fertilization and in vitro culture. Only 30-40% of such oocytes reach the blastocyst stage, at which they can be transferred to a recipient or frozen for future use. We know now that the quality of the oocyte is crucial in determining the proportion of immature oocytes that form blastocysts while the post-fertilization culture environment has a major influence on the quality of the blastocyst. Use of sexed-sorted sperm in conjunction with in vitro embryo production is a potentially efficient means of obtaining offspring of the desired sex. Concerns regarding the use of sexed semen technology include the apparent lower fertility of sorted sperm, the lower survival of sorted sperm after cryopreservation and the reduced number of sperm that could be separated in a specified time period. Assessment of embryo quality is a challenge. Morphological assessment is at present the most popular method for embryo selection prior to transfer. Other non-invasive assessment methods include the timing of the first cleavage division which has been linked to developmental ability. Quantitative examination of gene expression is an additional valuable tool to assess the viability of cultured embryos. A substantial amount of evidence exists to demonstrate that the culture conditions to which the embryo is exposed, particularly in the post-fertilization period, can have perturbing effects on the pattern of gene expression in the embryo with potentially important long-term consequences. Collectively, in vivo and in vitro studies support the notion that the environment of the embryo is critical for its future. The identification and characterization of the short-term effects of in vitro culture raises the question about long-term consequences and safety of assisted reproductive technologies. The impact of some of these technologies on animal production will be the subject of this review.
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