Incubators in the embryology laboratory serve as the artificial uterus during the in vitro fertilization process. The incubators are vital to the safe-keeping of embryos outside the body. Incubators are connected to a gas supply that provied oxygen CO2 and Nitrogen in the proper mixture to keep embryos safe from disturbances in pH. The incubators must also maintian body temperature, even when the doors to the incubators are opened several times throughout the day. Alarm systems are used to measure the temperature and gas conditions within the incubators. The alarms will even notify the staff of other conditions such as an open door, excessive noise, or a loss in power. Incubators are connected to an emergency generator to prevent a loss of power so the alarm is a redundant safety system. The photos below will give you an overview of the incubators used in an in vitro fertilization laboratory.
In this photo, there are six incubators that are used for in vitro fertilization, or IVF. The incubators each have a status panel that allows the embryologist to set the incubators and monitor the conditions of the incubators. Tubing that supplies the gases to the incubator are seen in the background. Embryos require an environment that is 5% oxygen. Normal air contains 20% oxygen so embryos must remain isolated from normal air. This is one of the critical functions of a modern incubator. The controls on the incubators will also allow the embryologist to adjust the temperature, keeping the embryos at body temperature.
This view shows the outer door open. Notice the seal around the door on the left. Looking into the incubator, there are two glass doors for each shelf. Each shelf will be used to hold the embryos for one person. Opening the doors to one shelf, allows the other shelves to remain closed. This helps to prevent drastic changes in gas mixtures within the incubators. The interior is heated throughout the incubator in such a way as to avoid hot and cold spots. Embryos are sensitive to changes in temperature so incubators must be specially engineered to keep the conditions perfect inside the incubator.
This is a closer view of an incubator showing glass containers called dessicators. These containers are often used to further isolate the embryos for changes in environmental conditions. Each embryology lab will have their own technique and there is not one best way to “culture” embryos. Having a well thought out culture system and a modern incubation system with a backup system is necessary for all IVF laboratories. While these incubators are no match for the complexity of a woman’s uterues, they have served as a temporary home for hundreds of babies that are now part of happy families.