• cattle;
  • embryo mortality;
  • endotoxin;
  • inflammation;
  • mastitis

Causes for pre-implantation embryo loss, which can be as high as 50% or more of fertilized embryos, are multifactorial and largely undescribed. Studies in cattle using mastitis as a model indicate that one cause of early embryonic loss is infectious disease or activation of immune responses at sites outside the reproductive tract. Infection of the mammary gland in dairy cattle is associated with a reduction in pregnancy rate (proportion of inseminated cows that become pregnant) and an increase in the number of inseminations required to establish pregnancy. Also, intravenous challenge with bacterial peptidoglycan and polysaccharide at ∼days 3–5 after breeding reduced subsequent pregnancy rate in sheep that had been previously immunized against the same material. The mechanism by which extrauterine activation of immune and inflammatory responses leads to embryonic loss is not clear although cytokines probably play a crucial role. Effects could be exerted at the level of the hypothalamic–pituitary axis, ovary, reproductive tract or embryo. Interferon (IFN)-α, for example, which can reduce pregnancy rate in cattle when injected around 13–19 days after breeding, increases body temperature, inhibits secretion of luteinizing hormone, and reduces circulating concentrations of progesterone. Other cytokines or products of cytokine activation could cause embryonic loss by causing hyperthermia (as elevated temperature blocks oocyte function and embryonic development), exerting toxic effects on the corpus luteum [for example, IFN-γ, tumor necrosis factor-α (TNF-α) and prostaglandin F2α], stimulating endometrial prostaglandin synthesis [TNF-α and interleukin(IL)-1β], reducing endometrial cell proliferation (IL-1β), and interfering with oocyte maturation and embryonic development (TNF-α, nitric oxide, and prostaglandin F2α). Although largely neglected by reproductive immunologists, study of the involvement of the immune system in pre-implantation embryonic loss is likely to lead to new methods for enhancing fertility.