Contribution of epididymal epithelial cell functions to sperm epigenetic changes and the health of progeny

  • Date de publication : 2021-10-07


Chen H, Alves MBR, Belleannée C. Contribution of epididymal epithelial cell functions to sperm epigenetic changes and the health of progeny. Hum Reprod Update. 2021 Oct 7:dmab029. doi: 10.1093/humupd/dmab029. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 34618012.


Contribution of epididymal epithelial cell functions to sperm epigenetic changes and the health of progeny

Mot(s) Clé(s)

sperm maturation small non-coding RNA primary cilia mononuclear phagocytes male infertility extracellular vesicles epididymis epigenetics histones methylation


Background: Spermatozoa acquire their motility and fertilizing abilities during their maturation through the epididymis. This process is controlled by epididymal epithelial cells that possess features adapted to sense and respond to their surrounding environment and to communicate with spermatozoa. During the past decade, new intercellular communication processes have been discovered, including the secretion and transport of molecules from the epithelium to spermatozoa via extracellular vesicles (EVs), as well as sensing of the intraluminal milieu by cellular extensions.

Objective and rationale: This review addresses recent findings regarding epididymal epithelial cell features and interactions between spermatozoa and the epididymal epithelium as well as epigenetic modifications undergone by spermatozoa during transit through the epididymal microenvironment.

Search methods: A systematic search was conducted in Pubmed with the keyword 'epididymis'. Results were filtered on original research articles published from 2009 to 2021 and written in the English language. One hundred fifteen original articles presenting recent advancements on the epididymis contribution to sperm maturation were selected. Some additional papers cited in the primary reference were also included. A special focus was given to higher mammalian species, particularly rodents, bovines and humans, that are the most studied in this field.

Outcomes: This review provides novel insights into the contribution of epididymal epithelium and EVs to post-testicular sperm maturation. First, new immune cell populations have been described in the epididymis, where they are proposed to play a role in protecting the environment surrounding sperm against infections or autoimmune responses. Second, novel epididymal cell extensions, including dendrites, axopodia and primary cilia, have been identified as sensors of the environment surrounding sperm. Third, new functions have been outlined for epididymal EVs, which modify the sperm epigenetic profile and participate in transgenerational epigenetic inheritance of paternal traits.

Wider implications: Although the majority of these findings result from studies in rodents, this fundamental research will ultimately improve our knowledge of human reproductive physiopathologies. Recent discoveries linking sperm epigenetic modifications with paternal environmental exposure and progeny outcome further stress the importance of advancing fundamental research on the epididymis. From this, new therapeutic options for infertile couples and better counseling strategies may arise to increase positive health outcomes in children conceived either naturally or with ART.