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Zuping He, Wai-Yee Chan, and Martin Dym

Male infertility is now a major reproductive health problem because of an increasing number of environmental pollutants and chemicals, which eventually result in gene mutations. Genetic alterations caused by environmental factors account for a significant percentage of male infertility. Microarray technology is a powerful tool capable of measuring simultaneously the expression of thousands of genes expressed in a single sample. Eventually, advances in genetic technology will allow for the diagnosis of patients with male infertility due to congenital reasons or environmental factors. Since its introduction in 1994, microarray technology has made significant advances in the identification and characterization of novel or known genes possibly correlated with male infertility in mice, as well as in humans. This provides a rational basis for the application of microarray to establishing molecular signatures for the diagnosis and gene therapy targets of male infertility. In this review, the differential gene expression patterns characterized by microarray in germ and somatic cells at different steps of development or in response to stimuli, as well as a number of novel or known genes identified to be associated with male infertility in mice and humans, are addressed. Moreover, issues pertaining to measurement reproducibility are highlighted for the application of microarray data to male infertility.

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Fan Zhou, Wei Chen, Yiqun Jiang, and Zuping He

Spermatogonial stem cells (SSCs) are one of the most significant stem cells with the potentials of self-renewal, differentiation, transdifferentiation and dedifferentiation, and thus, they have important applications in reproductive and regenerative medicine. They can transmit the genetic and epigenetic information across generations, which highlights the importance of the correct establishment and maintenance of epigenetic marks. Accurate transcriptional and post-transcriptional regulation is required to support the highly coordinated expression of specific genes for each step of spermatogenesis. Increasing evidence indicates that non-coding RNAs (ncRNAs), including long non-coding RNAs (lncRNAs) and circular RNAs (circRNAs), play essential roles in controlling gene expression and fate determination of male germ cells. These ncRNA molecules have distinct characteristics and biological functions, and they independently or cooperatively modulate the proliferation, apoptosis and differentiation of SSCs. In this review, we summarized the features, biological function and fate of mouse and human SSCs, and we compared the characteristics of lncRNAs and circRNAs. We also addressed the roles and mechanisms of lncRNAs and circRNAs in regulating mouse and human SSCs, which would add novel insights into the epigenetic mechanisms underlying mammalian spermatogenesis and provide new approaches to treat male infertility.

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Zuping He, Maria Kokkinaki, Disha Pant, G Ian Gallicano, and Martin Dym

Small RNA molecules (small RNAs), including small interfering RNAs (siRNAs), microRNAs (miRNAs), and piwi-interacting RNAs (piRNAs), have recently emerged as important regulators of gene expression at the post-transcriptional or translation level. Significant progress has recently been made utilizing small RNAs in elucidating the molecular mechanisms regulating spermatogenesis. Spermatogenesis is a complex process that involves the division and eventual differentiation of spermatogonial stem cells into mature spermatozoa. The process of spermatogenesis is composed of several phases: mitotic proliferation of spermatogonia to produce spermatocytes; two meiotic divisions of spermatocytes to generate haploid round spermatids; and spermiogenesis, the final phase that involves the maturation of early-round spermatids into elongated mature spermatids. A number of miRNAs are expressed abundantly in male germ cells throughout spermatogenesis, while piRNAs are only present in pachytene spermatocytes and round spermatids. In this review, we first address the synthesis, mechanisms of action, and functions of siRNA, miRNA, and piRNA, and then we focus on the recent advancements in defining the small RNAs in the regulation of spermatogenesis. Concerns pertaining to the use of siRNAs in exploring spermatogenesis mechanisms and open questions in miRNAs and piRNAs in this field are highlighted. The potential applications of small RNAs to male contraception and treatment for male infertility and testicular cancer are also discussed.

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Zuping He, Lixin Feng, Xiaodong Zhang, Yixun Geng, Daniela A Parodi, Carlos Suarez-Quian, and Martin Dym

The objective of this study was to compare the expression of Col1a1, Col1a2, and procollagen I in the seminiferous tubules of immature and adult mice and to characterize the cellular expression pattern of procollagen I in germ cells during spermatogenesis in order to provide necessary groundwork for further functional studies in the process of spermatogenesis. Microarray analysis demonstrated that Col1a1 and Col1a2 were abundantly expressed in the seminiferous tubules of 6-day-old mice compared with 60-day-old mice, and the expression levels of Col1a1 and Col1a2 mRNA were validated using a semi-quantitative RT-PCR assay. Western blot analysis further confirmed that procollagen I was expressed at a higher level in the seminiferous tubules of 6-day-old mice compared with 60-day-old mice. Immunohistochemical analysis revealed that type A spermatogonia were positive for procollagen I in the testis of 6-day-old mice, whereas Sertoli cells were negative for this protein. The in vivo procollagen I staining in type A spermatogonia was corroborated in spermatogonia exhibiting a high potential for proliferation and the ability to form germ cell colonies in in vitro culture. Moreover, procollagen I was also detected in type A spermatogonia, intermediate spermatogonia, type B spermatogonia, and preleptotene spermatocytes in the adult mouse testes, but positive staining disappeared in more differentiated germ cell lineages detaching from the basement membrane, including leptotene spermatocytes, pachytene spermatocytes, round spermatids and elongated spermatids. These data suggest that Col1a1, Col1a2 and procollagen I are associated with type A spermatogonia and play a potential role in mediating the detachment and migration of germ cells during spermatogenesis.

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Shi Yang, Qingqing Yuan, Minghui Niu, Jingmei Hou, Zijue Zhu, Min Sun, Zheng Li, and Zuping He

Generation of male germ cells from pluripotent cells could provide male gametes for treating male infertility and offer an ideal model for unveiling molecular mechanisms of spermatogenesis. However, the influence and exact molecular mechanisms, especially downstream effectors of BMP4 signaling pathways, in male germ cell differentiation of the induce pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, remain unknown. This study was designed to explore the role and mechanism of BMP4 signaling in the differentiation of mouse iPS cells to male germ cells. Embryoid body (EB) formation and recombinant BMP4 or Noggin were utilized to evaluate the effect of BMP4 on male germ cell generation from mouse iPS cells. Germ cell-specific genes and proteins as well as the downstream effectors of BMP4 signaling pathway were assessed using real-time PCR and Western blots. We found that BMP4 ligand and its multiple receptors, including BMPR1a, BMPR1b and BMPR2, were expressed in mouse iPS cells. Real-time PCR and Western blots revealed that BMP4 could upregulate the levels of genes and proteins for germ cell markers in iPS cells-derived EBs, whereas Noggin decreased their expression in these cells. Moreover, Smad1/5 phosphorylation, Gata4 transcription and the transcripts of Id1 and Id2 were enhanced by BMP4 but decreased when exposed to Noggin. Collectively, these results suggest that BMP4 promotes the generation of male germ cells from iPS cells via Smad1/5 pathway and the activation of Gata4, Id1 and Id2. This study thus offers novel insights into molecular mechanisms underlying male germ cell development.

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Hong Wang, Liping Wen, Qingqing Yuan, Min Sun, Minghui Niu, and Zuping He

Within the seminiferous tubules there are two major cell types, namely male germ cells and Sertoli cells. Recent studies have demonstrated that male germ cells and Sertoli cells can have significant applications in treating male infertility and other diseases. However, primary male germ cells are hard to proliferate in vitro and the number of spermatogonial stem cells is scarce. Therefore, methods that promote the expansion of these cell populations are essential for their use from the bench to the bed side. Notably, a number of cell lines for rodent spermatogonia, spermatocytes and Sertoli cells have been developed, and significantly we have successfully established a human spermatogonial stem cell line with an unlimited proliferation potential and no tumor formation. This newly developed cell line could provide an abundant source of cells for uncovering molecular mechanisms underlying human spermatogenesis and for their utilization in the field of reproductive and regenerative medicine. In this review, we discuss the methods for establishing spermatogonial, spermatocyte and Sertoli cell lines using various kinds of approaches, including spontaneity, transgenic animals with oncogenes, simian virus 40 (SV40) large T antigen, the gene coding for a temperature-sensitive mutant of p53, telomerase reverse gene (Tert), and the specific promoter-based selection strategy. We further highlight the essential applications of these cell lines in basic research and translation medicine.

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Maria Kokkinaki, Tin-Lap Lee, Zuping He, Jiji Jiang, Nady Golestaneh, Marie-Claude Hofmann, Wai-Yee Chan, and Martin Dym

Spermatogenesis in man starts with spermatogonial stem cells (SSCs), and leads to the production of sperm in ∼64 days, common to old and young men. Sperm from elderly men are functional and able to fertilize eggs and produce offspring, even though daily sperm production is more than 50% lower and damage to sperm DNA is significantly higher in older men than in those who are younger. Our hypothesis is that the SSC/spermatogonial progenitors themselves age. To test this hypothesis, we studied the gene expression profile of mouse SSC/progenitor cells at several ages using microarrays. After sequential enzyme dispersion, we purified the SSC/progenitors with immunomagnetic cell sorting using an antibody to GFRA1, a known SSC/progenitor cell marker. RNA was isolated and used for the in vitro synthesis of amplified and labeled cRNAs that were hybridized to the Affymetrix mouse genome microarrays. The experiments were repeated twice with different cell preparations, and statistically significant results are presented. Quantitative RT-PCR analysis was used to confirm the microarray results. Comparison of four age groups (6 days, 21 days, 60 days, and 8 months old) showed a number of genes that were expressed specifically in the older mice. Two of them (i.e. Icam1 and Selp) have also been shown to mark aging hematopoietic stem cells. On the other hand, the expression levels of the genes encoding the SSC markers Gfra1 and Plzf did not seem to be significantly altered by age, indicating that age affects only certain SSC/progenitor properties.

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Xiaoxu Chen, Dongxue Che, Pengfei Zhang, Xueliang Li, Qingqing Yuan, Tiantian Liu, Jiayin Guo, Tongying Feng, Ligang Wu, Minzhi Liao, Zuping He, and Wenxian Zeng

Spermatogenesis includes mitosis of spermatogonia, meiosis of pachytene spermatocytes and spermiogenesis of round spermatids. MiRNAs as a ~22 nt small noncoding RNA are involved in regulating spermatogenesis at post-transcriptional level. However, the dynamic miRNAs expression in the developmental porcine male germ cells remains largely undefined. In this study, we purified porcine spermatogonia, pachytene spermatocytes and round spermatids using a STA-PUT apparatus. A small RNA deep sequencing and analysis were conducted to establish a miRNAs profiling in these male germ cells. We found that 19 miRNAs were differentially expressed between spermatogonia and pachytene spermatocytes, and 74 miRNAs differentially expressed between pachytene spermatocytes and round spermatids. Furthermore, 91 miRNAs were upregulated, while 108 miRNAs were downregulated in spermatozoa. We demonstrated that ssc-miR-10a-5p, ssc-miR-125b, ssc-let-7f and ssc-miR-186 were highly expressed in spermatogonia, pachytene spermatocytes, round spermatids and spermatozoa respectively. The findings could provide novel insights into roles of miRNAs in regulation of porcine spermatogenesis.

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Jingmei Hou, Shi Yang, Hao Yang, Yang Liu, Yun Liu, Yanan Hai, Zheng Chen, Ying Guo, Yuehua Gong, Wei-Qiang Gao, Zheng Li, and Zuping He

Infertility is a major and largely incurable disease caused by disruption and loss of germ cells. It affects 10–15% of couples, and male factor accounts for half of the cases. To obtain human male germ cells ‘especially functional spermatids’ is essential for treating male infertility. Currently, much progress has been made on generating male germ cells, including spermatogonia, spermatocytes, and spermatids, from various types of stem cells. These germ cells can also be used in investigation of the pathology of male infertility. In this review, we focused on advances on obtaining male differentiated germ cells from different kinds of stem cells, with an emphasis on the embryonic stem (ES) cells, the induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, and spermatogonial stem cells (SSCs). We illustrated the generation of male differentiated germ cells from ES cells, iPS cells and SSCs, and we summarized the phenotype for these stem cells, spermatocytes and spermatids. Moreover, we address the differentiation potentials of ES cells, iPS cells and SSCs. We also highlight the advantages, disadvantages and concerns on derivation of the differentiated male germ cells from several types of stem cells. The ability of generating mature and functional male gametes from stem cells could enable us to understand the precise etiology of male infertility and offer an invaluable source of autologous male gametes for treating male infertility of azoospermia patients.

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Chencheng Yao, Yun Liu, Min Sun, Minghui Niu, Qingqing Yuan, Yanan Hai, Ying Guo, Zheng Chen, Jingmei Hou, Yang Liu, and Zuping He

Spermatogenesis is composed of three distinctive phases, which include self-renewal of spermatogonia via mitosis, spermatocytes undergoing meiosis I/II and post-meiotic development of haploid spermatids via spermiogenesis. Spermatogenesis also involves condensation of chromatin in the spermatid head before transformation of spermatids to spermatozoa. Epigenetic regulation refers to changes of heritably cellular and physiological traits not caused by modifications in the DNA sequences of the chromatin such as mutations. Major advances have been made in the epigenetic regulation of spermatogenesis. In this review, we address the roles and mechanisms of epigenetic regulators, with a focus on the role of microRNAs and DNA methylation during mitosis, meiosis and spermiogenesis. We also highlight issues that deserve attention for further investigation on the epigenetic regulation of spermatogenesis. More importantly, a thorough understanding of the epigenetic regulation in spermatogenesis will provide insightful information into the etiology of some unexplained infertility, offering new approaches for the treatment of male infertility.