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Induction of ultra-morphological features of apoptosis in mature and immature sperm

1 Department of Dermatology, Venerology and Allergology, University Hospital Leipzig, Leipzig, Germany
2 Institute of Anatomy, University of Leipzig, Leipzig, Germany

Correspondence Address:
Sonja Grunewald,
Department of Dermatology, Venerology and Allergology, University Hospital Leipzig, Leipzig
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

There is a fundamental body of evidence suggesting that activated apoptosis signaling in ejaculated human sperm negatively influences their fertilization potential. However, it is still controversial whether this apoptotic signaling is a relic of an abortive apoptosis related to spermatogenesis or if it should be regarded as a functional preformed pathway in mature sperm leading to stereotypical morphological changes reflecting nuclear disassembly. To address this question, apoptosis was induced using betulinic acid in mature and immature ejaculated human sperm enriched by density gradient centrifugation. Execution of apoptosis was monitored by observing ultra-morphological changes via transmission electron microscopy. Typical morphological signs of apoptosis in somatic cells include plasma membrane blebbing with the formation of apoptotic bodies, impaired mitochondrial integrity, defects of the nuclear envelope, and nuclear fragmentation; these morphologies have also been observed in human sperm. In addition, these apoptotic characteristics were more frequent in immature sperm compared to mature sperm. Following betulinic acid treatment, apoptosis-related morphological changes were induced in mature sperm from healthy donors. This effect was much less pronounced in immature sperm. Moreover, in both fractions, the betulinic acid treatment increased the percentage of acrosome-reacted sperm. The results of our ultra-morphological study prove the functional competence of apoptosis in mature ejaculated human sperm. The theory of a sole abortive process may be valid only for immature sperm. The induction of the acrosome reaction by stimulating apoptosis might shed light on the biological relevance of sperm apoptosis.

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