Estrogen receptor-alpha (ESR1) is highly expressed in the efferent ductules of all species studied as well as in the epididymal epithelium in mice and other select species. Male mice lacking ESR1 (Esr1KO) are infertile, but transplantation studies demonstrated that Esr1KO germ cells are capable of fertilization when placed in a wild-type reproductive tract. These results suggest that extratesticular regions, such as the efferent ductules and epididymis, are the major source of pathological changes in Esr1KO males. Previous studies have shown alterations in ion and fluid transporters in the efferent duct and epididymal epithelia of Esr1KO males, leading to misregulation of luminal fluid pH. To determine the effect of an altered epididymal milieu on Esr1KO sperm, we assayed sperm morphology in the different regions of the epididymis. Sperm recovered from the epididymis exhibited abnormal flagellar coiling and increased incidence of spontaneous acrosome reactions, both of which are consistent with exposure to abnormal epididymal fluid. Analysis of the epididymal fluid revealed that the osmolality of the Esr1KO fluid was reduced relative to wild type, consistent with prior reports of inappropriate fluid absorption from the efferent ductules. This, along with the finding that morphological defects increased with transit through the epididymal duct, suggests that the anomalies in sperm are a consequence of the abnormal luminal environment. Consistent with this, incubating Esr1KO sperm in a more wild-type-like osmotic environment significantly rescued the abnormal flagellar coiling. This work demonstrates that Esr1KO mice exhibit an abnormal fluid environment in the lumen of the efferent ducts and epididymis, precluding normal sperm maturation and instead resulting in progressive deterioration of sperm that contributes to infertility.
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Vol. 82 • No. 5