Epigenetics, spermatogenesis and male infertility.
Epigenetic modifications characterized by DNA methylation, histone modifications, and chromatin remodeling are important regulators in a number of biological processes, including spermatogenesis. Several genes in the testes are regulated through epigenetic mechanisms, indicating a direct influence of epigenetic mechanisms on the process of spermatogenesis. In the present article, we have provided a comprehensive review of the epigenetic processes in the testes, correlation of epigenetic aberrations with male infertility, impact of environmental factors on the epigenome and male fertility, and significance of epigenetic changes/aberrations in assisted reproduction. The literature review suggested a significant impact of epigenetic aberrations (epimutations) on spermatogenesis, and this could lead to male infertility. Epimutations (often hypermethylation) in several genes, namely MTHFR, PAX8, NTF3, SFN, HRAS, JHM2DA, IGF2, H19, RASGRF1, GTL2, PLAG1, D1RAS3, MEST, KCNQ1, LIT1, and SNRPN, have been reported in association with poor semen parameters or male infertility. Environmental toxins/drugs may affect fertility via epigenetic modifications. For example, 5-aza-2-deoxycytidine, an anticancer agent, causes a decrease in global DNA methylation that leads to altered sperm morphology, decreased sperm motility, decreased fertilization capacity, and decreased embryo survival. Similarly, Endocrine disruptors, such as methoxychlor (an estrogenic pesticide) and vinclozolin (an anti-androgenic fungicide) have been found by experiments on animals to affect epigenetic modifications that may cause spermatogenic defects in subsequent generations. Assisted reproduction procedures that have been considered rather safe, are now being implicated in inducing epigenetic changes that could affect fertility in subsequent generations. Techniques such as intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI) and round spermatid injection (ROSI) may increase the incidence of imprinting disorders and adversely affect embryonic development by using immature spermatozoa that may not have established proper imprints or global methylation. Epigenetic changes, in contrast to genetic aberrations, may be less deleterious because they are potentially reversible. Further research could identify certain drugs capable of reversing epigenetic changes.