The dynamic epigenetic program in male germ cells: Its role in spermatogenesis, testis cancer, and its response to the environment

Microsc Res Tech. 2009 Aug;72(8):603-19. doi: 10.1002/jemt.20715.


Spermatogenesis is a truly remarkable process that requires exquisite control and synchronization of germ cell development. It is prone to frequent error, as paternal infertility contributes to 30-50% of all infertility cases; yet, in many cases, the mechanisms underlying its causes are unknown. Strikingly, aberrant epigenetic profiles, in the form of anomalous DNA and histone modifications, are characteristic of cancerous testis cells. Germ cell development is a critical period during which epigenetic patterns are established and maintained. The progression from diploid spermatogonia to haploid spermatozoa involves stage- and testis-specific gene expression, mitotic and meiotic division, and the histone-protamine transition. All are postulated to engender unique epigenetic controls. In support of this idea are the findings that mouse models with gene deletions for epigenetic modifiers have severely compromised fertility. Underscoring the importance of understanding how epigenetic marks are set and interpreted is evidence that abnormal epigenetic programming of gametes and embryos contributes to heritable instabilities in subsequent generations. Numerous studies have documented the existence of transgenerational consequences of maternal nutrition, or other environmental exposures, but it is only now recognized that there are sex-specific male-line transgenerational responses in humans and other species. Epigenetic events in the testis have just begun to be studied. New work on the function of specific histone modifications, chromatin modifiers, DNA methylation, and the impact of the environment on developing sperm suggests that the correct setting of the epigenome is required for male reproductive health and the prevention of paternal disease transmission.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Epigenesis, Genetic*
  • Gene Expression Regulation*
  • Germ Cells / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Spermatogenesis*
  • Testicular Neoplasms*