Freeze-dried spermatozoa typically shows a reduction in fertility primarily due to the DNA damage resulting from the sublimation process. In order to minimize the physical/mechanical damage resulting from lyophilization, here we focused on the freezing phase, comparing two cooling protocols: (i) rapid-freezing, where ram sperm sample is directly plunged into liquid nitrogen (LN-group), as currently done; (ii) slow-freezing, where the sample is progressively cooled to − 50 °C (SF-group). The spermatozoa dried in both conditions were analysed to assess residual water content by Thermal Gravimetric Analysis (TGA) and DNA integrity using Sperm Chromatin Structure Assay (SCSA). TGA revealed more than 90% of water subtraction in both groups. A minor DNA damage, Double-Strand Break (DSB) in particular, characterized by a lower degree of abnormal chromatin structure (Alpha-T), was detected in the SF-group, comparing to the LN-one. In accordance with the structural and DNA integrity data, spermatozoa from SF-group had the best embryonic development rates, comparing to LN-group: cleaved embryos [42/100 (42%) versus 19/75 (25.3%), P < 0.05, SL and LN respectively] and blastocyst formation [7/100 (7%) versus 2/75 (2.7%), P < 0.05, SF and LN respectively]. This data represents a significant technological advancement for the development of lyophilization as a valuable and cheaper alternative to deep-freezing in LN for ram semen.
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