In the course of mammalian spermiogenesis, a unique chromatin remodeling process takes place within elongating and condensing spermatid nuclei. The histone-to-protamine exchange results in efficient packaging and increased stability of the paternal genome. Although not fully understood, this change in chromatin architecture must require a global but transient appearance of endogenous DNA strand breaks because most of the DNA supercoiling is eliminated in the mature sperm. To establish the extent of DNA strand breakage and the stage specificity at which these breaks are created and repaired, we performed a sensitive terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase (TdT)-mediated dUTP nick-end labeling (TUNEL) assay to detect in situ DNA strand breaks on both mice and human testis cross sections. In the mouse, we established that DNA strand breaks are indeed detected in the whole population of elongating spermatids between stages IX and XI of the seminiferous epithelium cycle perfectly coincident with the chromatin remodeling as revealed by histone H4 hyperacetylation. Similarly, TUNEL analyses performed on human testis sections revealed an elevated and global increase in the levels of DNA strand breaks present in nuclei of round-shaped spermatids also coincident with chromatin remodeling. The demonstration of the global character of the transient DNA strand breaks in mammalian spermiogenesis suggests that deleterious consequences on genetic integrity of the male gamete may arise from any disturbance in the process. In addition, this investigation may shed some light on the origin of the low success rate that has been encountered so far with intracytoplasmic injection procedures making use of round spermatids in humans.
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