A thermodynamic model was used to evaluate and optimize a rapid three-step nonequilibrium freezing protocol for one-cell mouse embryos in the absence of cryoprotectants (CPAs) that avoided lethal intracellular ice formation (IIF). Biophysical parameters of one-cell mouse embryos were determined at subzero temperatures using cryomicroscopic investigations (i.e., the water permeability of the plasma membrane, its temperature dependence, and the parameters for heterogeneous IIF). The parameters were then incorporated into the thermodynamic model, which predicted the likelihood of IIF. Model predictions showed that IIF could be prevented at a cooling rate of 120 degrees C/min when a 5-min holding period was inserted at -10 degrees C to assure cellular dehydration. This predicted freezing protocol, which avoided IIF in the absence of CPAs, was two orders of magnitude faster than conventional embryo cryopreservation cooling rates of between 0.5 and 1 degree C/min. At slow cooling rates, embryos predominantly follow the equilibrium phase diagram and do not undergo IIF, but mechanisms other than IIF (e.g., high electrolyte concentrations, mechanical effects, and others) cause cellular damage. We tested the predictions of our thermodynamic model using a programmable freezer and confirmed the theoretical predictions. The membrane integrity of one-cell mouse embryos, as assessed by fluorescein diacetate retention, was approximately 80% after freezing down to -45 degrees C by the rapid nonequilibrium protocol derived from our model. The fact that embryos could be rapidly frozen in the absence of CPAs without damage to the plasma membrane as assessed by fluorescein diacetate retention is a new and exciting finding. Further refinements of this protocol is necessary to retain the developmental competence of the embryos.
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