The Simmet Lecture: New Horizons on an Old Landscape – Oxidative Stress, DNA Damage and Apoptosis in the Male Germ Line


Author’s address (for correspondence): R. John Aitken, Discipline of Biological Sciences, Faculty of Science and IT, University of Newcastle, Callaghan, NSW 2308, Australia. E-mail:


Our ability to diagnose and treat male infertility is gradually improving in concert with advances in our understanding of the molecular mechanisms underpinning defective sperm function. In this context, one of the factors to emerge as a major causative agent in male infertility is oxidative stress. Spermatozoa are particularly susceptible to such stress because they are exceptionally rich in vulnerable substrates such as polyunsaturated fatty acids, proteins and DNA. The lack of sperm cytoplasm also provides these cells with little capacity to protect themselves from oxidative attack or to effect any repair, should damage occur. Similarly, sperm chromatin is in a quasi-crystalline state and has very little capacity to respond to any DNA damage induced by oxidative attack. When the latter does occur, it appears to be initiated by reactive oxygen species (ROS) generated by the sperm mitochondria. These free radicals attack the lipids present in the sperm mitochondria generating electrophilic aldehydes, which bind to components of the mitochondrial electron transport chain stimulating yet more ROS production. The oxidative stress created via this self-propagating mechanism initiates an apoptotic cascade as a result of which the spermatozoa loose their capacity for fertilization and suffer damage to their DNA. Phosphatidylserine externalization is a late event in sperm apoptosis and may facilitate the silent phagocytosis of moribund cells in the female reproductive tract, that is, the phagocytosis of senescent spermatozoa without the accompanying generation of an inflammatory response. Encouragingly, the involvement of oxidative stress in the aetiology of male infertility has opened up new opportunities for therapeutic interventions involving the judicious administration of nucleophiles and other forms of antioxidants.