mTOR Regulates Gap Junction Alpha-1 Protein Trafficking in Sertoli Cells and Is Required for the Maintenance of Spermatogenesis in Mice1

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Abstract

The mammalian target of rapamycin (Mtor) gene encodes a serine/threonine kinase that acts as a master regulator of processes as diverse as cell growth, protein synthesis, cytoskeleton reorganization, and cell survival. In the testis, physiological roles forMtorhave been proposed in perinatal Sertoli cell proliferation and blood-testis barrier (BTB) remodeling during spermatogenesis, but no in vivo studies ofMtorfunction have been reported. Here, we used a conditional knockout approach to targetMtorin Sertoli cells. The resultingMtorflox/flox;Amhr2cre/+ mice were characterized by progressive, adult-onset testicular atrophy associated with disorganization of the seminiferous epithelium, loss of Sertoli cell polarity, increased germ cell apoptosis, premature release of germ cells, decreased epididymal sperm counts, increased sperm abnormalities, and infertility. Histopathologic analysis and quantification of the expression of stage-specific markers showed a specific loss of pachytene spermatocytes and spermatids. Although the BTB and the ectoplasmic specializations did not appear to be altered inMtorflox/flox;Amhr2cre/+ mice, a dramatic redistribution of gap junction alpha-1 (GJA1) was detected in their Sertoli cells. Phosphorylation of GJA1 at Ser373, which is associated with its internalization, was increased in the testes ofMtorflox/flox;Amhr2cre/+ mice, as was the expression and phosphorylation of AKT, which phosphorylates GJA1 at this site. Together, these results indicate thatMtorexpression in Sertoli cells is required for the maintenance of spermatogenesis and the progression of germ cell development through the pachytene spermatocyte stage. One mechanism of mTOR action may be to regulate gap junction dynamics by inhibiting AKT, thereby decreasing GJA1 phosphorylation and internalization. mTOR regulates gap junction alpha-1 protein distribution in Sertoli cells and is necessary for progression through the pachytene spermatocyte stage.

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