During mammalian preimplantation development, a substantial numbers of embryos are believed to be lost for reasons that are unclear. Using female rats, we investigated whether the developmental status of embryos is influenced by bacterial infection and endotoxin in the reproductive tract. From the vagina of cycling rats (n = 11), 21 bacterial isolates were identified; they were Streptococcus faecalis (S. faecalis; 38%), Escherichia coli (E. coli; 19%), Acinetobactor calcoaceticus (A. calcoaceticus; 14%), and coagulase negative staphylococcus (14%), Micrococcus sp. (5%), Bacillus subtilis (B. subtilis; 5%) and Proteus vulgaris (P. vulgaris; 5%). From the vagina of day 4 pregnant rats (n = 12), 26 isolates were identified; they were S. faecalis (23%), A. calcoaceticus (23%), E. coli (15%), Micrococcus sp. (15%), B. subtilis (8%), P. vulgaris (4%), Staphylococcus aureus (4%), beta-hemolytic streptococcus (4%) and Pseudomonas aeruginosa (4%). Gram negative bacteria found in the vagina of cycling and day 4 pregnant rats were 38% and 46%, respectively. In both, bacterial load was 10(3)-10(5) colony forming units and there was no association with the abnormality of the recovered embryos. However, in two day 4 pregnant animals, pathogenic bacteria (Staphylococcus aureus and beta-hemolytic streptococcus) were isolated and embryos recovered from them were degenerated and deformed. The vagina of day 9 pregnant animals (n = 7) were, however, sterile. Consistently, in all animals, the upper reproductive tract (uterus and oviduct) was devoid of any bacteria and no anaerobic bacteria were isolated from any part of the tract. The levels of endotoxin in the vagina of cycling and day 4 pregnant rats were 1.35 +/- 0.1 and 1.17 +/- 0.1 endotoxin units (EU), respectively. It was undetectable in the oviduct and uterus of all animals (n = 5) except one which showed high levels of endotoxin in uterus (4.5 EU) and oviduct (2.2 EU) and the animal also produced degenerated and deformed embryos. These results indicate that common bacterial flora of vagina may not affect embryo development and the presence of pathogenic bacteria in the vagina and/or endotoxin in reproductive tract could be detrimental to viability of gametes and preimplantation embryos in rats.