Human embryos commonly form abnormal nuclei during development: a mechanism of DNA damage, embryonic aneuploidy, and developmental arrest

Hum Reprod. 2016 Feb;31(2):312-23. doi: 10.1093/humrep/dev281. Epub 2015 Nov 29.


Study question: What is the prevalence and developmental significance of morphologic nuclear abnormalities in human preimplantation embryos?

Summary answer: Nuclear abnormalities are commonly found in human IVF embryos and are associated with DNA damage, aneuploidy, and decreased developmental potential.

What is known already: Early human embryonic development is complicated by genomic errors that occur after fertilization. The appearance of extra-nuclear DNA, which has been observed in IVF, may be a result of such errors. However, the mechanism by which abnormal nuclei form and the impact on DNA integrity and embryonic development is not understood.

Study design, size, duration: Cryopreserved human cleavage-stage embryos (n = 150) and cryopreserved blastocysts (n = 105) from clinical IVF cycles performed between 1997 and 2008 were donated for research. Fresh embryos (n = 60) of poor quality that were slated for discard were also used. Immunohistochemical, microscopic and cytogenetic analyses at different developmental stages and morphologic grades were performed.

Participants/materials, setting, methods: Embryos were fixed and stained for DNA, centromeres, mitotic activity and DNA damage and imaged using confocal microscopy. Rates of abnormal nuclear formation were compared between morphologically normal cleavage-stage embryos, morphologically normal blastocysts, and poor quality embryos. To control for clinical and IVF history of oocytes donors, and quality of frozen embryos within our sample, cleavage-stage embryos (n = 52) were thawed and fixed at different stages of development and then analyzed microscopically. Cleavage-stage embryos (n = 9) were thawed and all blastomeres (n = 62) were disaggregated, imaged and analyzed for karyotype. Correlations were made between microscopic and cytogenetic findings of individual blastomeres and whole embryos.

Main results and the role of chance: The frequency of microscopic nuclear abnormalities was lower in blastocysts (5%; 177/3737 cells) than in cleavage-stage embryos (16%, 103/640 blastomeres, P < 0.05) and highest in arrested embryos (65%; 44/68 blastomeres, P < 0.05). DNA damage was significantly higher in cells with microscopic nuclear abnormalities (γH2AX (phosphorylated (Ser139) histone H2A.X): 87.1%, 74/85; replication protein A: 72.9%, 62/85) relative to cells with normal nuclear morphology (γH2AX: 9.3%, 60/642; RPA: 5.6%, 36/642) (P < 0.05). Blastomeres containing nuclear abnormalities were strongly associated with aneuploidy (Fisher exact test, two-tailed, P < 0.01).

Limitations, reasons for caution: The embryos used were de-identified, and the clinical and IVF history was unknown.

Wider implications of the findings: This study explores a mechanism of abnormal embryonic development post-fertilization. While most of the current data have explored abnormal meiotic chromosome segregation in oocytes as a primary mechanism of reproductive failure, abnormal nuclear formation during early mitotic cell division in IVF embryos also plays a significant role. The detection of abnormal nuclear formation may have clinical application in noninvasive embryo selection during IVF.

Study funding/competing interests: The study was supported by Columbia University and the New York Stem Cell Foundation. Authors declare no competing interest.

Keywords: DNA damage; micronucleation; mitosis; mosaicism; preimplantation development.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aneuploidy*
  • Blastocyst / cytology*
  • Blastocyst / ultrastructure
  • Cell Nucleus / ultrastructure
  • DNA Damage*
  • Embryonic Development*
  • Humans
  • Immunohistochemistry