Melatonin has been used to promote in vitro embryo development in different species. This study determined the effects of melatonin on in vitro porcine embryo development; in particular, cleavage rate, blastocyst rate, and blastocyst cell number. Starting 5 hr after insemination, porcine zygotes were cultured in porcine zygote medium 3 (PZM-3) culture medium supplemented with melatonin at increasing concentrations (10(-12) M, 10(-9) M, 10(-6) M, 10(-3) M). Melatonin at a concentration of 10(-9) M had a positive effect on cleavage rates, while the highest concentration of melatonin (10(-3) M) significantly decreased cleavage rates. Although blastocyst rates were not increased by 10(-9) M melatonin, blastocyst cell numbers were significantly higher for embryos subjected to 10(-9) M melatonin. The expression levels of the pro-apoptotic gene BAX and anti-apoptotic gene BCL2L1 in blastocysts were not affected by the presence of melatonin in the culture medium. To further study the protective properties of 10(-9) M melatonin against stressful conditions, hydrogen peroxide (0.01 mm) and heat (40 degrees C) were used during embryo culture. The addition of melatonin to embryos subjected to 40 degrees C for 3 hr increased cleavage rates, but had no protective effect for embryos subjected to 0.01 mm H(2)O(2), probably because the physiological levels of melatonin could not counteract the pharmacological levels of H(2)O(2). Our data indicate that 10(-9) M melatonin has a positive effect on porcine embryo cleavage rates and blastocyst total cell numbers and it might have a protective effect against heat stress.