The objective was to investigate the effects of dietary energy and urea supplementation on oocyte and embryo quality in sheep using in vivo and in vitro experimental models. Sixty-three ewes were fed grass meal at 0.5 or 2.0 times maintenance energy requirements (MER). The diet was supplemented with feed grade urea (U) for half of the ewes on each energy treatment. Ewes were stimulated with 1000 IU eCG and either slaughtered on the day of pessary withdrawal, for in vitro embryo production, or mated and slaughtered on Day 5 for embryo recovery. Urea decreased cleavage rate (48.3 vs 39.7%) and consequently blastocyst rate (41.6 vs 36.8%) but the differences were not significant. Oocytes from animals on 2.0 MER had a lower cleavage rate (54.9 vs 36.0%) and blastocyst yield (49.3 vs 31.4%) than those on 0.5 MER. However, there was an interaction between urea and energy for cleavage (P = 0.04) and blastocyst yield (P = 0.03) indicating a variable response to urea in the presence of high energy. This was manifested by a decrease in cleavage rate in the presence of urea and high energy (22%, 8 of 36), and a reduction in blastocyst development (19%, 7 of 36). When blastocyst development rate was expressed as a proportion of cleaved oocytes there was no difference between groups; in addition, there was no difference between groups in terms of blastocyst hatching rate (overall mean 66.1%) or blastocyst cell number on Day 8 (overall mean +/- SEM, 138.4 +/- 9.0, n=61). The effect of urea on cleavage rate in vivo was more severe. Urea supplementation reduced (P<0.001) the cleavage rate (93 vs 62%). Despite this, the yield of blastocysts was unaffected. Oocytes from ewes on 0.5 MER exhibited a lower (P<0.05) cleavage rate than those on 2.0 MER (66 vs 87%). This effect was also apparent at the blastocyst stage (40.0 vs 50.9%), although the difference was no longer significant. There were no differences in hatching rate (overall mean 70.7%) or blastocyst cell numbers (overall mean +/- SEM, 166.3 +/- 15.6, n=40). Collectively, these results suggest that both high dietary energy and urea content influence subsequent embryo development in vitro, and the deleterious effects of urea are likely influenced by concomitant energy intake.
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