Iron is required for the normal development of germ cells during spermatogenesis. Because these cells have no direct access to systemic iron, there exists a shuttle system involving production and secretion of the iron-transporting protein transferrin by the Sertoli cells. Previous reports using cultures of immature Sertoli cells exposed to adult germ cells, or in vivo studies involving germ cell-depleted adult rat testes, concluded that production of transferrin by Sertoli cells is modulated by germ cell complement.
In the present study we have used in situ hybridisation with cRNA probes directed against the 5′ and 3′ ends of transferrin mRNA to examine the pattern of expression of transferrin in the immature and adult rat testis. Adult rats were treated with ethane dimethane sulphonate or methoxyacetic acid (MAA) to manipulate their testosterone levels or germ cell complement respectively. Initial findings obtained using the 3′ probe showed a decrease in transferrin mRNA associated with round spermatid depletion. However, these data were not confirmed by in situ hybridisation when the 5′ probe was used. The specificity of the probes was examined using Northern blotting and the 3′ probe was found to hybridise to the germ cell transcript for hemiferrin even under conditions of high stringency. Examination of immature and pubertal rat testes by in situ hybridisation using the 5′ transferrin-specific probe found that as early as 14 days of age the level of expression of transferrin mRNA was clearly different between tubules, and the mRNA appeared to be expressed in Leydig cells on and after day 31. In the adult rat testis, maximal expression of transferrin mRNA was found at stages VIII-XIV, calling into question the interpretation of the results of some previous studies showing expression of transferrin mRNA at all stages of the spermatogenic cycle. This stage-specific pattern of expression was not altered by acute germ cell depletion using MAA. However, Northern blot analysis showed a statistically significant increase in transferrin mRNA expression at 7 days after MAA treatment when pachytene spermatocytes were depleted from tubules at all stages of the spermatogenic cycle at which transferrin is normally expressed.
In conclusion, we found that transferrin mRNA expression was not modulated by round spermatids as has been reported previously but that meiotic germ cells may influence expression of transferrin at specific stages of the spermatogenic cycle.