Advanced paternal age has been associated with an increased risk for spontaneous congenital disorders and common complex diseases (such as some cancers, schizophrenia, and autism), but the mechanisms that mediate this effect have been poorly understood. A small group of disorders, including Apert syndrome (caused by FGFR2 mutations), achondroplasia, and thanatophoric dysplasia (FGFR3), and Costello syndrome (HRAS), which we collectively term "paternal age effect" (PAE) disorders, provides a good model to study the biological and molecular basis of this phenomenon. Recent evidence from direct quantification of PAE mutations in sperm and testes suggests that the common factor in the paternal age effect lies in the dysregulation of spermatogonial cell behavior, an effect mediated molecularly through the growth factor receptor-RAS signal transduction pathway. The data show that PAE mutations, although arising rarely, are positively selected and expand clonally in normal testes through a process akin to oncogenesis. This clonal expansion, which is likely to take place in the testes of all men, leads to the relative enrichment of mutant sperm over time-explaining the observed paternal age effect associated with these disorders-and in rare cases to the formation of testicular tumors. As regulation of RAS and other mediators of cellular proliferation and survival is important in many different biological contexts, for example during tumorigenesis, organ homeostasis and neurogenesis, the consequences of selfish mutations that hijack this process within the testis are likely to extend far beyond congenital skeletal disorders to include complex diseases, such as neurocognitive disorders and cancer predisposition.
Copyright © 2012 The American Society of Human Genetics. Published by Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.