We investigated the impact of cryopreservation and thawing on levels of caspases-3, -8, and -9 activity, intact mitochondrial membrane potential (Δψm), and DNA fragmentation in human spermatozoa. Eleven pools of cryopreserved and eight pools of fresh semen samples were examined. Mature and immature fractions were separated on a two-layer density gradient (47% and 90%) and further subdivided based on the externalization of phosphatidylserine and its binding to annexin V-labeled superparamagnetic microbeads (ANMB). Levels of activated caspases were assessed using fluorescein-labeled inhibitors of caspases (FLICA), Δψm using a lipophilic cationic dye, and DNA fragmentation by the terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase-mediated dUTP nick end-labeling (TUNEL) assay. Cryopreservation was significantly associated with activation of caspases-3, -8, and -9, as well as disruption of the mitochondrial membrane potential but no significant changes were observed in DNA fragmentation. In mature sperm, caspase activation was only detected in the ANMB fraction, whereas in immature sperm, both ANMB and ANMB− fractions showed activated caspase levels. In ANMB immature sperm, apoptosis seemed to be triggered by a surface ligand-receptor mechanism as well as by disruption of mitochondria, whereas in ANMB− immature sperm, apoptosis was induced by activation of caspase-9 following loss of intact Δψm. These results demonstrate that selection of annexin V-negative mature spermatozoa might be of clinical relevance for fertility preservation, as this sperm fraction shows no activated apoptosis during the cryopreservation process.
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