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In the present study, we investigated the effects of various concentrations of cysteine (0.0, 0.6, 1.2 and 1.8 mM) added to the maturation medium on nuclear maturation and subsequent embryonic development of bovine oocytes exposed to heat stress (HS: set at 39.5 °C for 5 h, 40.0 °C for 5 h, 40.5 °C for 6 h, and 40.0 °C for 4 h versus 38.5 °C for 20 h as the control group). This regime mimicked the circadian rhythm of the vaginal temperature of lactating dairy cows during the summer season in southwestern Japan. Moreover, we also evaluated the oocyte's reactive oxygen species (ROS) and glutathione (GSH) levels and the apoptosis levels of the oocytes and cumulus cells in the presence or absence of 1.2 mM cysteine. As a result, HS in the without-cysteine group significantly suppressed (p < 0.05) both the nuclear maturation rate up to the metaphase (M)II stage and the blastocyst formation rate compared with that of the control group. In addition, this group showed significantly higher (p < 0.05) ROS levels and significantly lower (p < 0.05) GSH levels than those of the control group. Moreover, the level of TdT-mediated dUTP nick end labelling (TUNEL)-positive cumulus cells in the HS without-cysteine group was significantly higher (p < 0.05) than that of the control group. However, the addition of 1.2 mM cysteine to the maturation medium restored not only the nuclear maturation, blastocyst formation rates and GSH contents, but also increased the ROS and TUNEL-positive levels of the cumulus cells, but not oocytes, to that of the control group. These results indicate that the addition of 1.2 mM cysteine during in vitro maturation (IVM) may alleviate the influence of heat stress for oocyte developmental competence by increasing GSH content and inhibiting the production of oocyte ROS followed by apoptosis of cumulus cells.
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