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J Biol Chem. 2012 Sep 21;287(39):33048-60. Epub 2012 Jul 31.

Electrophilic aldehydes generated by sperm metabolism activate mitochondrial reactive oxygen species generation and apoptosis by targeting succinate dehydrogenase.

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Priority Research Centre in Reproductive Science, Discipline of Biological Sciences, Faculty of Science and IT, University of Newcastle, University Drive, Callaghan, New South Wales 2308, Australia.


Oxidative stress is a major cause of defective sperm function in cases of male infertility. Such stress is known to be associated with high levels of superoxide production by the sperm mitochondria; however, the causes of this aberrant activity are unknown. Here we show that electrophilic aldehydes such as 4-hydroxynonenal (4HNE) and acrolein, generated as a result of lipid peroxidation, target the mitochondria of human spermatozoa and stimulate mitochondrial superoxide generation in a dose- and time-dependent manner. The activation of mitochondrial electron leakage by 4HNE is shown to involve the disruption of succinate dehydrogenase activity and subsequent activation of an intrinsic apoptotic cascade beginning with a loss of mitochondrial membrane potential and terminating in oxidative DNA adduct formation, DNA strand breakage, and cell death. A tight correlation between spontaneous mitochondrial superoxide generation and 4HNE content (R(2) = 0.89) in untreated populations of human spermatozoa emphasized the pathophysiological significance of these findings. The latter also provide a biochemical explanation for the self-perpetuating nature of oxidative stress in the male germ line, with the products of lipid peroxidation stimulating free radical generation by the sperm mitochondria in a positive feedback loop.

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