Although embryo cryopreservation is routine for many mammalian species, it is important to know how the fundamental cryobiology of these cells changes with development. Progressive cleavage divisions result in a reduction in the blastomere surface area available for water and cryoprotectant mass transport. Therefore, the membrane permeability of murine oocytes, zygotes, 2-cell, 4-cell, and 8-cell embryos to water (Lp), and dimethylsulphoxide (PDMSO), and the reflection coefficient, sigma (sigma) were determined. Oocytes or zygotes were recovered, cumulus cells removed, then cultured until use. Oocytes and embryos were immobilized and perfused with treatment solutions at 24 degrees C. Osmotically induced cell volume changes over time were videotaped followed by image analysis. The Lp values in the presence of dimethylsulphoxide (DMSO) were 0.77, 0.81, 0.94, 0.86, and 1.10 microm/min/atm, and the PDMSO values were 1.85, 2.04, 2.41, 1.95, and 1.25x10(-3) cm/min for oocytes, zygotes, 2, 4, and 8-cell embryos respectively. The Lp values in the presence of DMSO were significantly (P < 0.05) higher than those in the absence of DMSO. Treating the whole embryo as a single osmotic entity leads to significantly (P < 0.05) elevated PDMSO estimates relative to those based upon measurements of individual blastomeres. These data indicate that both Lp and PDMSO estimates are lower when predicted on an individual blastomere basis. The data also show that neither Lp nor PDMSO differ among oocytes, zygotes, 2-cell and 4-cell embryos. However, the significantly higher Lp and lower PDMSO of the 8-cell stage support the hypothesis that fundamental cryobiological differences may require developmental stage-specific embryo cryopreservation protocols.