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Róisín A Griffin, Mark Baker, Robert John Aitken, Aleona Swegen and Zamira Gibb

Stallions experience lower per-cycle conception rates compared to other livestock species, largely because they are selected for breeding based on athletic prowess and not reproductive fitness. Mares are seasonal breeders, and pregnancies cannot be detected until 10–14 days post cover via transrectal ultrasonography. This means the detection of stallion fertility fluctuations is delayed by at least 2 weeks, which within the short breeding season employed by the thoroughbred horse breeding industry, can prove quite costly. For these reasons, there is increased demand for robust laboratory assays aimed at the accurate assessment of stallion fertility. This paper reviews our existing knowledge concerning the molecular mechanisms that underpin the functional competence of stallion spermatozoa, highlighting the relative importance of oxidative stress, DNA damage, sperm proteomics and RNA profile. We also consider the way in which fundamental improvements in our understanding of stallion sperm biology are informing the identification and development of possible biomarkers of fertility and thus avenues for the development of specific assays for fertility prediction.

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Robert John Aitken, Diatsendoula Gregoratos, Leslie Kutzera, Emma Towney, Minjie Lin, Alexandra Wilkins and Zamira Gibb

MTT is widely used in biology as a probe for cell viability by virtue of its ability to generate deposits of insoluble formazan at sites of intense oxidoreductase activity. This response is generally held to reflect mitochondrial redox activity; however, extra-mitochondrial MTT reduction has also been recorded in certain cell types. Given this background, we set out to determine the major sites of formazan deposition in mammalian spermatozoa. In the mouse, most MTT reduction took place within the extensive mitochondrial gyres, with a single minor site of formazan deposition on the sperm head. By contrast, human spermatozoa generally displayed small disorganized midpieces exhibiting moderate MTT reduction activity accompanied by a major extra-mitochondrial formazan deposit on various locations in the sperm head from the neck to the anterior acrosome. Equine spermatozoa presented a combination of these two patterns, with major formazan deposition in the mitochondria accompanied by an extra-mitochondrial formazan deposit in around 20% of cells. The functionality of human spermatozoa was positively associated with the presence of an extra-mitochondrial formazan granule. Subsequent studies indicated that this extra-mitochondrial activity was suppressed by the presence of diphenylene iodonium, zinc, 2-deoxyglucose, co-enzyme Q, an SOD mimetic and NADPH oxidase inhibitors. We conclude that the pattern of MTT reduction to formazan by spermatozoa is species specific and conveys significant information about the relative importance of mitochondrial vs extra-mitochondrial redox activity that, in turn, defines the functional qualities of these cells.