Study question: What human tissues and cell types express the X-linked reproductive homeobox (RHOX) gene cluster?
Summary answer: The RHOX homeobox genes and proteins are selectively expressed in germ cells in both the ovary and testis.
What is known already: The RHOX homeobox transcription factors are encoded by an X-linked gene cluster whose members are selectively expressed in the male and female reproductive tract of mice and rats. The Rhox genes have undergone strong selection pressure to rapidly evolve, making it uncertain whether they maintain their reproductive tissue-centric expression pattern in humans, an issue we address in this report.
Study design, size, duration: We examined the expression of all members of the human RHOX gene cluster in 11 fetal and 8 adult tissues. The focus of our analysis was on fetal testes, where we evaluated 16 different samples from 8 to 20 weeks gestation. We also analyzed fixed sections from fetal testes, adult testes and adult ovaries to determine the cell type-specific expression pattern of the proteins encoded by RHOX genes.
Participants/materials, setting, methods: We used quantitative reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction analysis to assay human RHOX gene expression. We generated antisera against RHOX proteins and used them for western blotting, immunohistochemical and immunofluorescence analyses of RHOXF1 and RHOXF2/2B protein expression.
Main results and the role of chance: We found that the RHOXF1 and RHOXF2/2B genes are highly expressed in the testis and exhibit low or undetectable expression in most other organs. Using RHOXF1- and RHOXF2/2B-specific antiserum, we found that both RHOXF1 and RHOXF2/2B are primarily expressed in germ cells in the adult testis. Early stage germ cells (spermatogonia and early spermatocytes) express RHOXF2/2B, while later stage germ cells (pachytene spermatocytes and round spermatids) express RHOXF1. Both RHOXF1 and RHOXF2/2B are expressed in prespermatogonia in human fetal testes. Consistent with this, RHOXF1 and RHOXF2/2B mRNA expression increases in the second trimester during fetal testes development when gonocytes differentiate into prespermatogonia. In the human adult ovary, we found that RHOXF1 and RHOXF2/2B are primarily expressed in oocytes.
Limitations, reasons for caution: While the average level of expression of RHOX genes was low or undetectable in all 19 human tissues other than testes, it is still possible that RHOX genes are highly expressed in a small subset of cells in some of these non-testicular tissues. As a case in point, we found that RHOX proteins are highly expressed in oocytes within the human ovary, despite low levels of RHOX mRNA in the whole ovary.
Wider implications of the findings: The cell type-specific and developmentally regulated expression pattern of the RHOX transcription factors suggests that they perform regulatory functions during human fetal germ cell development, spermatogenesis and oogenesis. Our results also raise the possibility that modulation of RHOX gene levels could correct some cases of human infertility and that their encoded proteins are candidate targets for contraceptive drug design.
Keywords: homeobox gene cluster; oogenesis; ovary; spermatogenesis; testis.