Could bovine research unlock women’s fertility secrets?

4 Jul 2023

Image: © benschonewille/

Lais Barbosa Latorraca’s research into bovine reproduction forms part of a wider study of fertility across species that is funded by the European Commission.

For PhD researcher Lais Barbosa Latorraca, basic research enables us “to identify ways to change processes in our favour”.

“We need a good foundation to build a strong house.”

Latorraca’s research into the growth of reproductive cells in cows could potentially lead to a deeper understanding of common fertility issues in many species, including humans.

Originally from Brazil, with degrees in veterinary medicine and in pharmacology and biotechnology, Latorraca is now undertaking a PhD in reproductive biology at University College Dublin (UCD). She recently showcased her research to a wide audience through the Soapbox Science initiative, which brings women scientists together to inform the public about their exciting work.

Latorraca’s interest in a research career “clicked” when she studied abroad in the US with an inspiring professor.

“I was fascinated by the idea of identifying a problem or a question, setting up an experiment to test my hypothesis, and finding that the results could be something totally unexpected.”

‘To be a good researcher, you need to be flexible, adaptable and overcome frustrations quickly’

Tell us about your current research.

Using cutting-edge techniques, including single-cell genome and transcriptome sequencing, my research investigates epigenetic changes during the bovine oocyte growth phase. In other words, it looks at modifications in the DNA that can determine how each gene will be expressed. The oocyte is the female gamete, and it holds all the ‘ingredients’ necessary to support embryo development.

The idea for the project came from the fact that bovine embryo in-vitro production is not as successful as it should be. Generally, laboratories around the world have an embryo production success rate of 30 to 35pc, meaning that for 10 oocytes that we collect and fertilise in the lab, only three or four will become viable embryos.

After years of research, this percentage has begun to increase. However, there is still room for improvement, especially when it comes to oocyte quality.

A woman with long, dark hair wears a dark blazer and a white top and smiles at the camera. There are shrubs, a tended lawn and blue skies behind her.

Image: Lais Barbosa Latorraca

A classic example of how much oocyte quality is important is the decline in fertility with age. After 35 years old, it gets harder and harder for women to achieve a successful pregnancy due to the quality of their gametes.

Therefore, there is a strong relationship between oocyte quality and fertility. This fact inspired a group of senior researchers around Europe to create a consortium called Eurova. The consortium is funded by the European Commission under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions and involves 15 PhD research projects with the shared aim of studying fertility in different species, including humans, mice and cattle.

The idea is that each PhD researcher focuses on one piece and in the end, we place all the pieces together to make our history. My share of the history is to understand the genetic changes that are happening when the oocyte is growing and getting ready to be fertilised.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

In my project, I’m using basic research to understand the normal pattern of gene expression and other DNA modifications in oocytes. Understanding what is normal will help us identify how different stress conditions can affect that pattern and reduce fertility.

In addition, once we identify where the problem is, we can think about solutions to avoid or correct that problem during an adverse condition. For example, it is well known that with age, a woman’s fertility is reduced and the chances of having a baby with a genetic disease are higher. The reason for that is related to oocyte quality and its DNA.

This is only one example using humans, but in our case, we want to understand gene expression in cattle oocytes in order to be able to reduce the negative effects caused by heat stress, the post-partum period, and diseases, among others. In addition, we can also use the bovine model to study woman’s fertility since both species are genetically similar.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I would say that curiosity is what made me become a researcher. Since I was a kid, I was always asking the why and how of everything, but I had a particular interest in biology. Therefore, I chose veterinary medicine as my professional career to combine my passion for animals and biology. I started to understand and be involved with research during veterinary school at the Federal University of Lavras in Brazil, where I was part of different study groups related to animal reproduction. We were coordinated by a professor, and we would discuss scientific papers and set up small experiments, but at that point, I still did not have the idea of becoming a researcher.

However, I got a scholarship to study at Colorado State University in the US and was lucky enough to meet a Brazilian professor, Dr Tanja Hess, and be involved in her research projects with horses. That was the click for me.

I finally found a way to fulfil my curiosity and answer the whys and hows, but now they were focused on reproduction. When I went back to Brazil for my final year of study, I was sure that I wanted to pursue a career in research.

What are some of the biggest challenges or misconceptions you face as a researcher in your field?

In general, the biggest challenge is to find funding and resources to do your research. Depending on the country, you have to find alternative and cheaper ways to get your results, which can interfere with the quality of your work.

Personally, another big challenge for me is to learn how to be a chameleon, literally.

In order to be a good researcher, you need to be flexible, adapt to different environments and overcome frustrations in the best way.

Most of the time, you don’t have control over what is going to happen, that is, whether you will get the results you want or not. Therefore, you must be prepared to change plans and rethink your theory as you move forward. Like the chameleon, you need to adapt to new environments, and sometimes that is not an easy task.

Do you think public engagement with science has changed in recent years?

My perspective is that the public often thinks about research as a waste of money because not everything can be applied to daily life. However, after Covid, the world could understand how important research is, especially basic research.

Talking about my work, the simplest way to get people engaged is to relate it to human fertility. I work with cows and my focus is to improve cattle fertility, but the public is not that interested in cows (even though they are super cute). Therefore, I always bring up woman’s fertility problems that people are more aware of, and I explain how we can use cows to study them.

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