Protamines package and shield the paternal DNA in the sperm nucleus and have been studied in many mouse models over decades. This review recapitulates and updates our knowledge about protamines and reveals a surprising complexity in protamine function and their interactions with other sperm nuclear proteins.
The packaging and safeguarding of paternal DNA in the sperm cell nucleus is a critical feature of proper sperm function. Histones cannot mediate the necessary hypercondensation and shielding of chromatin required for motility and transit through the reproductive tracts. Paternal chromatin is therefore reorganized and ultimately packaged by protamines. In most mammalian species, one protamine is present in mature sperm (PRM1). In rodents and primates among others, however, mature sperm contain a second protamine (PRM2). Unlike PRM1, PRM2 is cleaved at its N-terminal end. Although protamines have been studied for decades due to their role in chromatin hypercondensation and involvement in male infertility, key aspects of their function are still unclear. This review updates and integrates our knowledge of protamines and their function based on lessons learned from mouse models and starts to answer open questions. The combined insights from recent work reveal that indeed both protamines are crucial for the production of functional sperm and indicate that the two protamines perform distinct functions beyond simple DNA compaction. Loss of one allele of PRM1 leads to subfertility whereas heterozygous loss of PRM2 does not. Unprocessed PRM2 seems to play a distinct role related to the eviction of intermediate DNA-bound proteins and the incorporation of both protamines into chromatin. For PRM1, on the other hand, heterozygous loss leads to strongly reduced sperm motility as the main phenotype, indicating that PRM1 might be important for processes ensuring correct motility, apart from DNA compaction.