Reactive oxygen species and human spermatozoa: physiology and pathology


J. F. GRIVEAU Unité de Biologie de la Reproduction, 1 bis rue de la cochardiere, Hotel-Dieu, 35000 Rennes, France.


The role of reactive oxygen species (ROS) in the pathophysiology of human sperm function has been emphasized in recent years. ROS production in semen has been associated with loss of sperm motility, decreased capacity for sperm–oocyte fusion and loss of fertility. There is a current presumption that the most prolific source of ROS in sperm suspensions is an NADPH oxidase located in leukocytes or in spermatozoa which produces superoxide which is further converted to peroxide by the action of superoxide dismutase. Hydrogen peroxide has been recognized as the most toxic oxidizing species for human spermatozoa, which are very sensitive to lipid peroxidation owing to the high content of polyunsaturated fatty acids in their plasma membrane, though this is not the sole mechanism by which sperm function might be impaired by ROS. Although the excessive production of ROS is detrimental to human spermatozoa, there is a growing body of evidence which suggests that ROS are also involved in the physiological control of some sperm functions. This review focuses on the nature and source of the ROS generated by human spermataozoa as well as their operational mechanisms and their effects, which may be detrimental or beneficial.