• Sertoli cell;
  • blood—testis barrier;
  • tight junctions;
  • freeze-fracture;
  • irradiation


The tight junctions between Sertoli cells were examined by freeze-fracture in 3-month-old prenatally irradiated rats, whose seminiferous tubules are devoid of germ cells. The replicas from irradiated tubules show elaborate interdigitations of the lateral membranes of Sertoli cells and very extensive tight junctions. These junctions are characterized by a great number of continuous parallel or complex interweaving strands of intramembranous particles, preferentially associated with E fracture faces. The presence of highly cross-linked tight junctional strands is compatible with an epithelium deprived of germ cells, with a reduced need for flexibility. Anomalous ectoplasmic specializations, consisting of groups of cisternae arranged perpendicularly to the lateral surface, are found in the irradiated tubules. These structures may be involved in a storage mechanism of redundant lateral membrane resulting from the elimination of germ cells. Typical gap junctions, intercalated between the tight junctional strands, are larger and more frequently found in treated animals than in controls. These findings indicate that a very tight permeability barrier seems to be established in the irradiated testis even in the absence of germ cells. Thus, the formation and maintenance of Sertoli tight junctions do not appear to be directly dependent on the presence of germ cells. Nevertheless, the alterations detected in the tight junction architecture and in the ectoplasmic specializations indicate that maturing germ cells probably contribute to the functional organization of the blood—testis barrier in the normal testis.