Severe impairment of male reproductive organ development in a low SMN expressing mouse model of spinal muscular atrophy
Spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) is caused by low levels of survival motor neuron (SMN), a multifunctional protein essential for higher eukaryotes. While SMN is one of the most scrutinized proteins associated with neurodegeneration, its gender-specific role in vertebrates remains unknown. We utilized a mild SMA model (C/C model) to examine the impact of low SMN on growth and development of mammalian sex organs. We show impaired testis development, degenerated seminiferous tubules, reduced sperm count and low fertility in C/C males, but no overt sex organ phenotype in C/C females. Underscoring an increased requirement for SMN expression, wild type testis showed extremely high levels of SMN protein compared to other tissues. Our results revealed severe perturbations in pathways critical to C/C male reproductive organ development and function, including steroid biosynthesis, apoptosis, and spermatogenesis. Consistent with enhanced apoptosis in seminiferous tubules of C/C testes, we recorded a drastic increase in cells with DNA fragmentation. SMN was expressed at high levels in adult C/C testis due to an adult-specific splicing switch, but could not compensate for low levels during early testicular development. Our findings uncover novel hallmarks of SMA disease progression and link SMN to general male infertility.