Azoospermia, characterized by the absence of spermatozoa in the ejaculate, is a common cause of male infertility with a poorly characterized etiology. Exome sequencing analysis of two azoospermic brothers allowed the identification of a homozygous splice mutation in SPINK2, encoding a serine protease inhibitor believed to target acrosin, the main sperm acrosomal protease. In accord with these findings, we observed that homozygous Spink2 KO male mice had azoospermia. Moreover, despite normal fertility, heterozygous male mice had a high rate of morphologically abnormal spermatozoa and a reduced sperm motility. Further analysis demonstrated that in the absence of Spink2, protease-induced stress initiates Golgi fragmentation and prevents acrosome biogenesis leading to spermatid differentiation arrest. We also observed a deleterious effect of acrosin overexpression in HEK cells, effect that was alleviated by SPINK2 coexpression confirming its role as acrosin inhibitor. These results demonstrate that SPINK2 is necessary to neutralize proteases during their cellular transit toward the acrosome and that its deficiency induces a pathological continuum ranging from oligoasthenoteratozoospermia in heterozygotes to azoospermia in homozygotes.
Keywords: azoospermia; exome sequencing; genetics; infertility; spermatogenesis.
© 2017 The Authors. Published under the terms of the CC BY 4.0 license.