The finding of large, stage-specific changes in secretion of procathepsin L by rat Sertoli cells has led to the hypothesis that this proenzyme promotes the survival, replication, or differentiation of spermatogenic cells. Experiments described herein used a mouse model to test this hypothesis. To prove that mice are appropriate for this purpose, we first demonstrate that mature mouse Sertoli cells express cathepsin L mRNA in the same stage-specific manner as rat Sertoli cells and they also secrete procathepsin L. To test whether catalytically active cathepsin L is required for normal spermatogenesis, we examined the testes of 110- to 120-day-old furless mice, which express catalytically inactive cathepsin L. Morphologic examination of testes of furless mice revealed both normal and atrophic seminiferous tubules. Enumeration of atrophic tubules in furless and control mice demonstrates that lack of functional cathepsin L results in a 12-fold increase in seminiferous tubule atrophy. To determine whether lack of functional cathepsin L affects the production of male germ cells in apparently normal, nonatrophic tubules, we compared numbers in control and furless mice of preleptotene spermatocytes, pachytene spermatocytes, and round spermatids per Sertoli cell. Results demonstrate that the lack of functional cathepsin L causes a 16% reduction in formation of preleptotene spermatocytes and a 25% reduction in differentiation of these cells into pachytene spermatocyte. These results suggest that procathepsin L either directly or indirectly has two distinct functions in the testis. This proenzyme prevents atrophy of seminiferous tubules and promotes the formation of preleptotene spermatocytes and the differentiation of these meiotic cells into pachytene spermatocytes.
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