Glutathione peroxidase is one of the principal antioxidant defense enzymes in human spermatozoa, but it requires oxidized glutathione to be reduced by glutathione reductase using NADPH generated in the pentose phosphate pathway. We investigated whether flux through the pentose phosphate pathway would increase in response to oxidative stress and whether glutathione reductase was required to protect sperm from oxidative damage. Isotopic measurements of the pentose phosphate pathway and glycolytic flux, thiobarbituric acid assay of malondialdehyde for lipid peroxidation, and computer-assisted sperm analysis for sperm motility were assessed in a group of normal, healthy semen donors. Applying moderate oxidative stress to human spermatozoa by adding cumene hydroperoxide, H2O2, or xanthine plus xanthine oxidase or by promoting lipid peroxidation with ascorbate increased flux through the pentose phosphate pathway without changing the glycolytic rate. However, adding higher concentrations of oxidants inhibited both the pentose phosphate pathway and glycolytic flux. At concentrations of 50 μg/ml or greater, the glutathione reductase-inhibitor 1,3-bis-(2-chloroethyl) 1-nitrosourea decreased flux through the pentose phosphate pathway and blocked the response to cumene hydroperoxide. It also increased lipid peroxidation and impaired the survival of motility in sperm incubated under 95% O2. These data show that the pentose phosphate pathway in human spermatozoa can respond dynamically to oxidative stress and that inhibiting glutathione reductase impairs the ability of sperm to resist lipid peroxidation. We conclude that the glutathione peroxidase-glutathione reductase-pentose phosphate pathway system is functional and provides an effective antioxidant defense in normal human spermatozoa.
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