BACKGROUND: Intensive research on sperm ion channels has identified members of several ion channel families in both mouse and human sperm. Gene knock-out studies have unequivocally demonstrated the importance of the calcium and potassium conductances in sperm for fertility. In both species, the calcium current is carried by the highly complex cation channel of sperm (CatSper). In mouse sperm, the potassium current has been conclusively shown to be carried by a channel consisting of the pore forming subunit SLO3 and auxiliary subunit leucine-rich repeat-containing 52 (LRRC52). However, in human sperm it is controversial whether the pore forming subunit of the channel is composed of SLO3 and/or SLO1. Deciphering the role of the proton-specific Hv1 channel is more challenging as it is only expressed in human sperm. However, definitive evidence for a role in, and importance for, human fertility can only be determined through studies using clinical samples.
OBJECTIVE AND RATIONALE: This review aims to provide insight into the role of sperm ion channels in human fertilization as evidenced from recent studies of sperm from infertile men. We also summarize the key discoveries from mouse ion channel knock-out models and contrast the properties of mouse and human CatSper and potassium currents. We detail the evidence for, and consequences of, defective ion channels in human sperm and discuss hypotheses to explain how defects arise and why affected sperm have impaired fertilization potential.
SEARCH METHODS: Relevant studies were identified using PubMed and were limited to ion channels that have been characterized in mouse and human sperm. Additional notable examples from other species are included as appropriate.
OUTCOMES: There are now well-documented fundamental differences between the properties of CatSper and potassium channel currents in mouse and human sperm. However, in both species, sperm lacking either channel cannot fertilize in vivo and CatSper-null sperm also fail to fertilize at IVF. Sperm-lacking potassium currents are capable of fertilizing at IVF, albeit at a much lower rate. However, additional complex and heterogeneous ion channel dysfunction has been reported in sperm from infertile men, the causes of which are unknown. Similarly, the nature of the functional impairment of affected patient sperm remains elusive. There are no reports of studies of Hv1 in human sperm from infertile men.
WIDER IMPLICATIONS: Recent studies using sperm from infertile men have given new insight and critical evidence supporting the supposition that calcium and potassium conductances are essential for human fertility. However, it should be highlighted that many fundamental questions remain regarding the nature of molecular and functional defects in sperm with dysfunctional ion channels. The development and application of advanced technologies remains a necessity to progress basic and clinical research in this area, with the aim of providing effective screening methodologies to identify and develop treatments for affected men in order to help prevent failed ART cycles. Conversely, development of drugs that block calcium and/or potassium conductances in sperm is a plausible strategy for producing sperm-specific contraceptives.