ATP activation of peritubular cells drives testicular sperm transport

Elife. 2021 Jan 27;10:e62885. doi: 10.7554/eLife.62885.


Spermatogenesis, the complex process of male germ cell proliferation, differentiation, and maturation, is the basis of male fertility. In the seminiferous tubules of the testes, spermatozoa are constantly generated from spermatogonial stem cells through a stereotyped sequence of mitotic and meiotic divisions. The basic physiological principles, however, that control both maturation and luminal transport of the still immotile spermatozoa within the seminiferous tubules remain poorly, if at all, defined. Here, we show that coordinated contractions of smooth muscle-like testicular peritubular cells provide the propulsive force for luminal sperm transport toward the rete testis. Using a mouse model for in vivo imaging, we describe and quantify spontaneous tubular contractions and show a causal relationship between peritubular Ca2+ waves and peristaltic transport. Moreover, we identify P2 receptor-dependent purinergic signaling pathways as physiological triggers of tubular contractions both in vitro and in vivo. When challenged with extracellular ATP, transport of luminal content inside the seminiferous tubules displays stage-dependent directionality. We thus suggest that paracrine purinergic signaling coordinates peristaltic recurrent contractions of the mouse seminiferous tubules to propel immotile spermatozoa to the rete testis.

Keywords: P2 receptors; cell biology; germ cell development; human; male reproduction; mouse; purinergic signaling; spermatogenesis.

Plain Language Summary

As sperm develop in the testis, the immature cells must make their way through a maze of small tubes known as seminiferous tubules. However, at this stage, the cells do not yet move the long tails that normally allow them to ‘swim’; it is therefore unclear how they are able to move through the tubules. Now, Fleck, Kenzler et al. have showed that, in mice, muscle-like cells within the walls of seminiferous tubules can create waves of contractions that push sperm along. Further experiments were then conducted on cells grown in the laboratory. This revealed that a signaling molecule called ATP orchestrates the moving process by activating a cascade of molecular events that result in contractions. Fleck, Kenzler et al. then harnessed an advanced microscopy technique to demonstrate that this mechanism occurs in living mice. Together, these results provide a better understanding of how sperm mature, which could potentially be relevant for both male infertility and birth control.