SARS-CoV-2 Structural Proteins Modulated Blood-Testis Barrier-Related Proteins through Autophagy in the Primary Sertoli Cells

Viruses. 2023 May 29;15(6):1272. doi: 10.3390/v15061272.


The severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV-2) disrupts the blood-testis barrier (BTB), resulting in alterations in spermatogenesis. However, whether BTB-related proteins (such as ZO-1, claudin11, N-cadherin, and CX43) are targeted by SARS-CoV-2 remains to be clarified. BTB is a physical barrier between the blood vessels and the seminiferous tubules of the animal testis, and it is one of the tightest blood-tissue barriers in the mammalian body. In this study, we investigated the effects of viral proteins, via ectopic expression of individual viral proteins, on BTB-related proteins, the secretion of immune factors, and the formation and degradation of autophagosomes in human primary Sertoli cells. Our study demonstrated that ectopic expression of viral E (envelope protein) and M (membrane protein) induced the expressions of ZO-1 and claudin11, promoted the formation of autophagosomes, and inhibited autophagy flux. S (spike protein) reduced the expression of ZO-1, N-cadherin, and CX43, induced the expression of claudin11, and inhibited the formation and degradation of autophagosomes. N (nucleocapsid protein) reduced the expression of ZO-1, claudin11, and N-cadherin. All the structural proteins (SPs) E, M, N, and S increased the expression of the FasL gene, and the E protein promoted the expression and secretion of FasL and TGF-β proteins and the expression of IL-1. Blockage of autophagy by specific inhibitors resulted in the suppression of BTB-related proteins by the SPs. Our results indicated that SARS-CoV-2 SPs (E, M, and S) regulate BTB-related proteins through autophagy.

Keywords: SARS-CoV-2; Sertoli cells; autophagy; blood-testis barrier; immune factor; junction protein.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Autophagy
  • Blood-Testis Barrier
  • COVID-19* / metabolism
  • Cadherins
  • Connexin 43 / genetics
  • Connexin 43 / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mammals
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • SARS-CoV-2 / metabolism
  • Sertoli Cells*
  • Viral Proteins / metabolism


  • Connexin 43
  • Cadherins
  • Viral Proteins

Grants and funding

This work was supported by the Project of the Natural Science Foundation of Guangdong Province, China (Grant No. 2020A1515110362), the Guangdong Provincial Department of Education Innovative School Project, China (Grant No. 2020KZDZX1110), and the Marine Biology Foundation of Zhanjiang Bureau of Science and Technology (2021E05028).