Marijuana smokers and animals treated with Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol, the principal component of marijuana, show alterations of sperm morphology suggesting a role for cannabinoids in sperm differentiation and/or maturation. Because the cannabinoid receptor 1 (CNR1) activation appears to play a pivotal role in spermiogenesis, the developmental stage where DNA is remodeled, we hypothesized that CNR1 receptors might also influence chromatin quality in sperm. We used Cnr1 null mutant (Cnr1-/-) mice to study the possible role of endocannabinoids on sperm chromatin during spermiogenesis. We demonstrated that CNR1 activation regulated chromatin remodeling of spermatids by either increasing Tnp2 levels or enhancing histone displacement. Comparative analysis of wild-type, Cnr1+/-, and Cnr1-/- animals suggested the possible occurrence of haploinsufficiency for Tnp2 turnover control by CNR1, whereas histone displacement was disrupted to a lesser extent. Furthermore, flow cytometry analysis demonstrated that the genetic loss of Cnr1 decreased sperm chromatin quality and was associated with sperm DNA fragmentation. This damage increased during epididymal transit, from caput to cauda. Collectively, our results show that the expression/activity of CNR1 controls the physiological alterations of DNA packaging during spermiogenesis and epididymal transit. Given the deleterious effects of sperm DNA damage on male fertility, we suggest that the reproductive function of marijuana users may also be impaired by deregulation of the endogenous endocannabinoid system.
Spermatozoa (SPZ) are motile cells, characterized by a cargo of epigenetic information including histone post-translational modifications (histone PTMs) and non-coding RNAs. Specific histone PTMs are present in developing germ cells, with a key role in spermatogenic events such as self-renewal and commitment of spermatogonia (SPG), meiotic recombination, nuclear condensation in spermatids (SPT). Nuclear condensation is related to chromatin remodeling events and requires a massive histone-to-protamine exchange. After this event a small percentage of chromatin is condensed by histones and SPZ contain nucleoprotamines and a small fraction of nucleohistone chromatin carrying a landascape of histone PTMs. Circular RNAs (circRNAs), a new class of non-coding RNAs, characterized by a nonlinear back-spliced junction, able to play as microRNA (miRNA) sponges, protein scaffolds and translation templates, have been recently characterized in both human and mouse SPZ. Since their abundance in eukaryote tissues, it is challenging to deepen their biological function, especially in the field of reproduction. Here we review the critical role of histone PTMs in male germ cells and the profile of circRNAs in mouse and human SPZ. Furthermore, we discuss their suggested role as novel epigenetic biomarkers to assess sperm quality and improve artificial insemination procedure.
Endocannabinoids are lipidic modulators able to bind cannabinoid receptors (CNRs). Two types of CNRs have been cloned, CNR1 (central) and CNR2 (peripheral). The objectives of the present study were to investigate the expression pattern of CNR1 in the rat testis during prepubertal development and to define the CNR1 spatiotemporal pattern. From 31 to 60 days of age, CNR1 was immunolocalized in round elongating spermatids and spermatozoa, suggesting an important role for this receptor in spermatogenesis. From 14 to 60 days of age, adult Leydig cells (ALCs) at different developmental stages were positive for CNR1. In particular, CNR1 expression in differentiating ALCs was negatively correlated to cell division. Bromodeoxyuridine uptake experiments on serial sections showed that immature Leydig cells in mitosis were negative for CNR1; in contrast, immature nonmitotic Leydig cells were positive for CNR1. A further observation of few ALCs in CNR1KO mice validates the role of CNR1 during proliferative activity involved in ALC differentiation. In addition, starting from 41 days of age, a faint CNR1 signal was also observed in Sertoli cells. Taken together, these results demonstrate the first clear evidence (to our knowledge) of CNR1 in mammalian germinal epithelium, ALCs, and Sertoli cells and indicate that differentiation of ALCs may depend on the endocannabinoid system.
During transit through the epididymis, spermatozoa are normally kept immotile and do not attain the ability to become motile until they reach the caudal epididymis. This study was undertaken to determine whether endocannabinoids play a role in the epididymis and in particular in suppressing the ability of spermatozoa to become motile. We show that the levels of the endocannabinoid 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG) are high in mouse spermatozoa isolated from the caput (head) of the epididymis, where these cells do not move (or possess sluggish and irregular motility) and decrease dramatically in spermatozoa isolated from the cauda (tail). The subsequent gradient regulates, via autocrine communication, the activity of cannabinoid receptor CNR1 (previously known as CB1) present on the sperm cell membrane and induces caudal spermatozoa to acquire the potential to become motile ("start-up"). Accordingly, the genetic or pharmacological inactivation of CNR1 increases number of motile spermatozoa in caput. Also, blockers of endocannabinoid cellular uptake inhibit the potential to move of spermatozoa and destroy the 2-AG gradient throughout the epididymis. This gradient-regulated mechanism may encourage further research for future therapies related to male infertility.
The type 1-cannabinoid receptor, CNR1, regulates differentiation of spermatids. Indeed, we have recently reported that the genetic inactivation of Cnr1 in mice influenced chromatin remodeling of spermatids, by reducing histone displacement and then sperm chromatin quality indices (chromatin condensation and DNA integrity). Herein, we have studied, at both central and testicular levels, the molecular signals potentially involved in histone displacement. In particular, investigation of the neuroendocrine axis involved in estrogen production demonstrated down-regulation of the axis supporting FSH/estrogen secretion in Cnr1-knockout male mice. Conversely, Cnr1-knockout male mice treated with 17beta-estradiol showed a weak increase of pituitary Fsh-beta subunit mRNA levels and a rescue of sperm chromatin quality indices demonstrating that estrogens, possibly in combination with FSH secretion, play an important role in regulating chromatin remodeling of spermatids.
Circular RNAs (circRNAs) are expressed in human testis and seminal plasma. Until today, there is missing information about a possible payload of circRNAs in human spermatozoa (SPZ). With this in mind, we carried out a circRNA microarray identifying a total of 10.726 transcripts, 28% novel based and 84.6% with exonic structure; their potential contribution in molecular pathways was evaluated by KEGG analysis. Whether circRNAs may be related to SPZ quality was speculated evaluating two different populations of SPZ (A SPZ = good quality, B SPZ = low quality), separated on the basis of morphology and motility parameters, by Percoll gradient. Thus, 148 differentially expressed (DE)-circRNAs were identified and the expression of selected specific SPZ-derived circRNAs was evaluated in SPZ head/tail-enriched preparations, to check the preservation of these molecules during SPZ maturation and their transfer into oocyte during fertilization. Lastly, circRNA/miRNA/mRNA network was built by bioinformatics approach.
Spermatogenesis is a complex mechanism which allows the production of male gametes; it consists of mitotic, meiotic, and differentiation phases. Spermiogenesis is the terminal differentiation process during which haploid round spermatids undergo several biochemical and morphological changes, including extensive remodelling of chromatin and nuclear shape. Spermiogenesis is under control of endocrine, paracrine, and autocrine factors, like gonadotropins and testosterone. More recently, emerging pieces of evidence are suggesting that, among these factors, estrogens may have a role. To date, this is a matter of debate and concern because of the agonistic and antagonistic estrogenic effects that environmental chemicals may have on animal and human with damaging outcome on fertility. In this review, we summarize data which fuel this debate, with a particular attention to our recent results, obtained using type 1 cannabinoid receptor knockout male mice as animal model.
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