Progress in reproductive biology - new insights into the binding behaviour of the porcine sperm protein 'AWN'

Markiertes Eber-Spermium, Foto: P. Kroh, Leibniz-IZW
Markiertes Eber-Spermium, Foto: P. Kroh, Leibniz-IZW

A scientific team from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW), Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (HUB) and the Leibniz Research Institute for Molecular Pharmacology (Leibniz-FMP) discovered a previously unknown localisation of the porcine sperm protein 'AWN', strengthening the assumption that this protein is involved in sperm-egg fusion. The new findings are important for assisted reproduction. The results were published in the journal "Biology of Reproduction".

Proteins are an essential component of the seminal fluid and play a role in fertilisation. On the one hand, they probably protect the male germ cells (sperm) during their migration to the oocyte, on the other hand they also mediate the communication of sperm with the female genital tract and the female gametes. Fibronectin type II proteins are predominant in ruminants, domestic dogs and humans, whereas spermadhesins are predominantly described in domestic horses and domestic pigs. In most animal species, the dominant proteins are still largely unknown. In order to better understand fertility problems and to improve techniques of assisted reproduction such as artificial insemination for the conservation of threatened species, the study of such proteins and their function therefore makes an important contribution.

Since experiments with natural proteins are difficult to carry out, the scientists used the possibility of producing proteins in genetically modified bacteria in the laboratory. "Such proteins could then also be used for assisted reproduction techniques," says Beate Braun, a scientist at Leibniz-IZW. The scientists used this technique to produce a spermadhesin, the 'AWN' (named after the letter codes for the first three amino acids in the protein chain: A = alanine, W = tryptophan, N = asparagine) in this way.

Spermadhesins have the ability to bind to other structures. However, the molecular binding partner sites - especially of sperm - are diverse and not well known. Although spermadhesins form aggregates with each other or with other proteins, it is unclear whether they can also directly bind to lipids of the sperm envelope - similar to fibronectin type II proteins. "We have now showed for the first time an electrostatically-driven binding mechanism of 'AWN' to negatively charged lipids. This is very remarkable, since negative lipids are usually located on membranes inside cells. Until now, however, only a localisation of 'AWN' proteins on the surface of the sperm head had been described," explains Pascal Kroh, PhD student at Leibniz-IZW.

In order to visualise whether 'AWN' was actually inside sperm cells, the scientific team had an antibody produced against a fragment of natural 'AWN'. Fluorescence and electron microscopy images indeed confirmed the intracellular presence of natural 'AWN'. Interestingly, the scientists found the protein mainly in the equatorial head segment of boar spermatozoa. The way it could have been is incorporated into the sperm must have taken place during the maturation process inside the testis/epididymis. "This fits, as 'AWN' is not only a component of the seminal fluid, but is already generated in the testis," says Pascal Kroh.

If the processes that prepare spermatozoa for fertilization in the female genital tract are simulated in the laboratory, the protein remains in the equatorial sperm segment. "This suggests that the sperm adhesin 'AWN' could also play a role in the fusion of sperm and egg," surmises Karin Müller, a reproductive biologist at Leibniz-IZW. The team will test this hypothesis in future studies.



Kroh PD, Braun BC, Lui F, Müller P, Müller K (2022): Boar spermadhesin AWN: Novel insights into its binding behavior and localization on sperm. Biology of Reproduction.



Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW)
in the Forschungsverbund Berlin e.V.
Alfred-Kowalke-Straße 17

10315 Berlin



Pascal D Kroh

Dept. of Reproduction Biology

phone: +49 (0)30 5168 617



Dr Karin Müller

Dept. of Reproduction Biology

phone: +49 (0)30 5168 613



Steven Seet
Public Relations
phone: +49 (0)30 5168 125


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