Microtubule affinity-regulating kinase 4 (MARK4) is a component of the ectoplasmic specialization in the rat testis.
During the seminiferous epithelial cycle of spermatogenesis, the ectoplasmic specialization (ES, a testis-specific adherens junction, AJ, type) maintains the polarity of elongating/elongated spermatids and confers adhesion to Sertoli cells in the seminiferous epithelium, and known as the apical ES. On the other hand, the ES is also found at the Sertoli-Sertoli cell interface at the blood-testis barrier (BTB) known as basal ES, which together with the tight junction (TJ), maintains Sertoli cell polarity and adhesion, creating a functional barrier that limits paracellular transport of substances across the BTB. However, the apical and basal ES are segregated and restricted to the adluminal compartment and the BTB, respectively. During the transit of preleptotene spermatocytes across the BTB and the release of sperm at spermiation at stage VIII of the seminiferous epithelial cycle, both the apical and basal ES undergo extensive restructuring to facilitate cell movement at these sites. The regulation of these events, in particular their coordination, remains unclear. Studies in other epithelia have shown that the tubulin cytoskeleton is intimately related to cell movement, and MARK [microtubule-associated protein (MAP)/microtubule affinity-regulating kinase] family kinases are crucial regulators of tubulin cytoskeleton stability. Herein MARK4, the predominant member of the MARK protein family in the testis, was shown to be expressed by both Sertoli and germ cells. MARK4 was also detected at the apical and basal ES, displaying highly restrictive spatiotemporal expression at these sites, as well as co-localizing with markers of the apical and basal ES. The expression of MARK4 was found to be stage-specific during the epithelial cycle, structurally associating with ?-tubulin and the desmosomal adaptor plakophilin-2, but not with actin-based BTB proteins occludin, ?-catenin and Eps8 (epidermal growth factor receptor pathway substrate 8, an actin bundling and barbed end capping protein). More importantly, it was shown that the expression of MARK4 tightly associated with the integrity of the apical ES because a diminished expression of MARK4 associated with apical ES disruption that led to the detachment of elongating/elongated spermatids from the epithelium. These findings thus illustrate that the integrity of apical ES, an actin-based and testis-specific AJ, is dependent not only on the actin filament network, but also on the tubulin-based cytoskeleton.