Elevated Temperatures Cause Transposon-Associated DNA Damage in C. elegans Spermatocytes

Curr Biol. 2020 Dec 21;30(24):5007-5017.e4. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2020.09.050. Epub 2020 Oct 15.


Sexually reproducing organisms use meiosis to generate haploid gametes and faithfully transmit their genome to the next generation. In comparison to oogenesis in many organisms, spermatogenesis is particularly sensitive to small temperature fluctuations, and spermatocytes must develop within a very narrow isotherm [1-4]. Although failure to thermoregulate spermatogenetic tissue and prolonged exposure to elevated temperatures are linked to male infertility in several organisms, the mechanisms of temperature-induced male infertility have not been fully elucidated [5]. Here, we show that upon exposure to a brief 2°C temperature increase, Caenorhabditis elegans spermatocytes exhibit up to a 25-fold increase in double-strand DNA breaks (DSBs) throughout meiotic prophase I and a concurrent reduction in male fertility. We demonstrate that these heat-induced DSBs in spermatocytes are independent of the endonuclease SPO-11. Further, we find that the production of these heat-induced DSBs in spermatocytes correlate with heat-induced mobilization of Tc1/mariner transposable elements, which are known to cause DSBs and alter genome integrity [6, 7]. Moreover, we define the specific sequences and regions of the male genome that preferentially experience these heat-induced de novo Tc1 insertions. In contrast, oocytes do not exhibit changes in DSB formation or Tc1 transposon mobility upon temperature increases. Taken together, our data suggest spermatocytes are less tolerant of higher temperatures because of an inability to effectively repress the movement of specific mobile DNA elements that cause excessive DNA damage and genome alterations, which can impair fertility.

Keywords: C. elegans; DNA breaks; DNA damage; heat stress; male infertility; meiosis; sexual dimorphism; spermatogenesis; transposons.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Animals, Genetically Modified
  • Caenorhabditis elegans / physiology*
  • Caenorhabditis elegans Proteins / genetics
  • Caenorhabditis elegans Proteins / metabolism
  • DNA Breaks, Double-Stranded
  • DNA Transposable Elements / genetics*
  • DNA-Binding Proteins / genetics
  • DNA-Binding Proteins / metabolism
  • Female
  • Fertility / genetics
  • Heat-Shock Response / genetics*
  • Hot Temperature / adverse effects
  • Male
  • Oocytes / physiology
  • Spermatocytes / enzymology
  • Spermatocytes / growth & development*
  • Spermatogenesis / genetics*
  • Transposases / genetics
  • Transposases / metabolism


  • Caenorhabditis elegans Proteins
  • DNA Transposable Elements
  • DNA-Binding Proteins
  • mariner transposases
  • Tc1 transposase
  • Transposases