Background: Spermatogenesis culminates in production of one of the most highly differentiated cells in biology, the spermatozoon. The gametes that emerge from the testes are, however, functionally immature and only acquire full functionality once they have completed a process of post-testicular maturation in the epididymis and female reproductive tract. Remarkably, this acquisition of sperm function occurs while these cells are transcriptionally and translationally silent and is therefore highly dependent on post-translational modifications to their existing protein complement. In this review, we consider the emerging roles of several prominent molecular chaperone families in orchestrating both the morphological differentiation of male germ cells during spermatogenesis and their functional transformation during sperm maturation. Methods: Journal databases were searched using key words, including chaperone, heat shock protein, testes, spermatogenesis, spermatozoa, epididymal maturation, capacitation and fertilization. Results: In the past two decades, molecular chaperones have been acknowledged to play key roles in controlling both the morphological transformation of germ cells during spermatogenesis and the post-testicular maturation of these cells as they transit the male and female reproductive tracts. Furthermore, there is mounting evidence that aberrant chaperone expression may be a major contributing factor to the defective sperm function seen in many cases of male infertility. Conclusions: Molecular chaperones are critically involved in all phases of sperm development. Targeted disruption of these proteins has the ability to arrest spermatogenesis, compromise sperm maturation and inhibit fertilization. These proteins therefore hold considerable promise as targets for novel contraceptive strategies and as diagnostic biomarkers for male infertility.
Human Reproduction Update Vol. 18, Issue 4, p. 420-435