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J Androl. 2011 Nov-Dec;32(6):576-86. doi: 10.2164/jandrol.111.012971. Epub 2011 Mar 25.

Establishment of cell-cell cross talk in the epididymis: control of luminal acidification.

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  • 1Program in Membrane Biology, MGH Simches Research Center, 185 Cambridge Street, Boston, MA 02114, USA.


Male infertility is often caused by sperm that have low motility and interact poorly with the oocyte. Spermatozoa acquire these crucial functions in the epididymis. A low luminal bicarbonate (HCO(3)(-)) concentration and low pH keep sperm quiescent during their maturation and storage in this organ. This review describes how epididymal epithelial cells work in a concerted manner, together with spermatozoa, to establish and maintain this acidic luminal environment. Clear cells express the proton-pumping ATPase (V-ATPase) in their apical membrane and actively secrete protons. HCO(3)(-) induces V-ATPase accumulation in apical microvilli in clear cells via HCO(3)(-)-sensitive adenylyl cyclase-dependent cAMP production. HCO(3)(-) is secreted from principal cells following basolateral stimulation, to transiently "prime" spermatozoa before ejaculation. Luminal ATP and adenosine also induce V-ATPase apical accumulation in clear cells via activation of P2 and P1 receptors, respectively. ATP is released into the lumen from sperm and principal cells and is then metabolized into adenosine by local nucleotidases. In addition, the V-ATPase is regulated by luminal angiotensin II via activation of basal cells, which can extend narrow body projections that cross the tight junction barrier. Basal cells then secrete nitric oxide, which diffuses out to stimulate proton secretion in clear cells via activation of the cGMP pathway. Thus, an elaborate communication network is present between principal cells and clear cells, and between basal cells and clear cells, to control luminal acidification. Monitoring and decoding these "intercellular conversations" will help define pathophysiologic mechanisms underlying male infertility.

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