Origin and composition of cell-free DNA in spent medium from human embryo culture during preimplantation development

Hum Reprod. 2018 Apr 1;33(4):745-756. doi: 10.1093/humrep/dey028.


Study question: What is the origin and composition of cell-free DNA in human embryo spent culture media?

Summary answer: Cell-free DNA from human embryo spent culture media represents a mix of maternal and embryonic DNA, and the mixture can be more complex for mosaic embryos.

What is known already: In 2016, ~300 000 human embryos were chromosomally and/or genetically analyzed using preimplantation genetic testing for aneuploidies (PGT-A) or monogenic disorders (PGT-M) before transfer into the uterus. While progress in genetic techniques has enabled analysis of the full karyotype in a single cell with high sensitivity and specificity, these approaches still require an embryo biopsy. Thus, non-invasive techniques are sought as an alternative.

Study design, size, duration: This study was based on a total of 113 human embryos undergoing trophectoderm biopsy as part of PGT-A analysis. For each embryo, the spent culture media used between Day 3 and Day 5 of development were collected for cell-free DNA analysis. In addition to the 113 spent culture media samples, 28 media drops without embryo contact were cultured in parallel under the same conditions to use as controls. In total, 141 media samples were collected and divided into two groups: one for direct DNA quantification (53 spent culture media and 17 controls), the other for whole-genome amplification (60 spent culture media and 11 controls) and subsequent quantification. Some samples with amplified DNA (N = 56) were used for aneuploidy testing by next-generation sequencing; of those, 35 samples underwent single-nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) sequencing to detect maternal contamination. Finally, from the 35 spent culture media analyzed by SNP sequencing, 12 whole blastocysts were analyzed by fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH) to determine the level of mosaicism in each embryo, as a possible origin for discordance between sample types.

Participants/materials, setting, methods: Trophectoderm biopsies and culture media samples (20 μl) underwent whole-genome amplification, then libraries were generated and sequenced for an aneuploidy study. For SNP sequencing, triads including trophectoderm DNA, cell-free DNA, and follicular fluid DNA were analyzed. In total, 124 SNPs were included with 90 SNPs distributed among all autosomes and 34 SNPs located on chromosome Y. Finally, 12 whole blastocysts were fixed and individual cells were analyzed by FISH using telomeric/centromeric probes for the affected chromosomes.

Main results and the role of chance: We found a higher quantity of cell-free DNA in spent culture media co-cultured with embryos versus control media samples (P ≤ 0.001). The presence of cell-free DNA in the spent culture media enabled a chromosomal diagnosis, although results differed from those of trophectoderm biopsy analysis in most cases (67%). Discordant results were mainly attributable to a high percentage of maternal DNA in the spent culture media, with a median percentage of embryonic DNA estimated at 8%. Finally, from the discordant cases, 91.7% of whole blastocysts analyzed by FISH were mosaic and 75% of the analyzed chromosomes were concordant with the trophectoderm DNA diagnosis instead of the cell-free DNA result.

Limitations, reasons for caution: This study was limited by the sample size and the number of cells analyzed by FISH.

Wider implications of the findings: This is the first study to combine chromosomal analysis of cell-free DNA, SNP sequencing to identify maternal contamination, and whole-blastocyst analysis for detecting mosaicism. Our results provide a better understanding of the origin of cell-free DNA in spent culture media, offering an important step toward developing future non-invasive karyotyping that must rely on the specific identification of DNA released from human embryos.

Study funding/ competing interest: This work was funded by Igenomix S.L. There are no competing interests.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cell-Free Nucleic Acids / analysis*
  • Culture Media / chemistry*
  • Embryo Culture Techniques*
  • Embryonic Development / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Pregnancy


  • Cell-Free Nucleic Acids
  • Culture Media