Molecular genetics of infertility: loss-of-function mutations in humans and corresponding knockout/mutated mice

Hum Reprod Update. 2021 Jan 4;27(1):154-189. doi: 10.1093/humupd/dmaa034.


Background: Infertility is a major issue in human reproductive health, affecting an estimated 15% of couples worldwide. Infertility can result from disorders of sex development (DSD) or from reproductive endocrine disorders (REDs) with onset in infancy, early childhood or adolescence. Male infertility, accounting for roughly half of all infertility cases, generally manifests as decreased sperm count (azoospermia or oligozoospermia), attenuated sperm motility (asthenozoospermia) or a higher proportion of morphologically abnormal sperm (teratozoospermia). Female infertility can be divided into several classical types, including, but not limited to, oocyte maturation arrest, premature ovarian insufficiency (POI), fertilization failure and early embryonic arrest. An estimated one half of infertility cases have a genetic component; however, most genetic causes of human infertility are currently uncharacterized. The advent of high-throughput sequencing technologies has greatly facilitated the identification of infertility-associated gene mutations in patients over the past 20 years.

Objective and rationale: This review aims to conduct a narrative review of the genetic causes of human infertility. Loss-of-function mutation discoveries related to human infertility are summarized and further illustrated in tables. Corresponding knockout/mutated animal models of causative genes for infertility are also introduced.

Search methods: A search of the PubMed database was performed to identify relevant studies published in English. The term 'mutation' was combined with a range of search terms related to the core focus of the review: infertility, DSD, REDs, azoospermia or oligozoospermia, asthenozoospermia, multiple morphological abnormalities of the sperm flagella (MMAF), primary ciliary dyskinesia (PCD), acephalic spermatozoa syndrome (ASS), globozoospermia, teratozoospermia, acrosome, oocyte maturation arrest, POI, zona pellucida, fertilization defects and early embryonic arrest.

Outcomes: Our search generated ∼2000 records. Overall, 350 articles were included in the final review. For genetic investigation of human infertility, the traditional candidate gene approach is proceeding slowly, whereas high-throughput sequencing technologies in larger cohorts of individuals is identifying an increasing number of causative genes linked to human infertility. This review provides a wide panel of gene mutations in several typical forms of human infertility, including DSD, REDs, male infertility (oligozoospermia, MMAF, PCD, ASS and globozoospermia) and female infertility (oocyte maturation arrest, POI, fertilization failure and early embryonic arrest). The causative genes, their identified mutations, mutation rate, studied population and their corresponding knockout/mutated mice of non-obstructive azoospermia, MMAF, ASS, globozoospermia, oocyte maturation arrest, POI, fertilization failure and early embryonic arrest are further illustrated by tables. In this review, we suggest that (i) our current knowledge of infertility is largely obtained from knockout mouse models; (ii) larger cohorts of clinical cases with distinct clinical characteristics need to be recruited in future studies; (iii) the whole picture of genetic causes of human infertility relies on both the identification of more mutations for distinct types of infertility and the integration of known mutation information; (iv) knockout/mutated animal models are needed to show whether the phenotypes of genetically altered animals are consistent with findings in human infertile patients carrying a deleterious mutation of the homologous gene; and (v) the molecular mechanisms underlying human infertility caused by pathogenic mutations are largely unclear in most current studies.

Wilder implications: It is important to use our current understanding to identify avenues and priorities for future research in the field of genetic causes of infertility as well as to apply mutation knowledge to risk prediction, genetic diagnosis and potential treatment for human infertility.

Keywords: asthenozoospermia; female infertility; genetic causes; human infertility; knockout mice; mutations; oligozoospermia; teratozoospermia.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infertility, Female / genetics*
  • Infertility, Male* / genetics
  • Loss of Function Mutation
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Mice, Knockout
  • Sperm Motility
  • Spermatozoa