Stem cell factor (SCF) plays an important role in migration, adhesion, proliferation, and survival of primordial germ cells and spermatogonia during testicular development. However, the function of SCF in the adult testis is poorly described. We have previously shown that, in the presence of SCF, there were more type A spermatogonia incorporating thymidine at stage XII of rat seminiferous tubules cultured in vitro than in the absence of SCF, implying that the increased DNA synthesis might result from enhanced survival of spermatogonia. To explore the potential pro-survival function of SCF during spermatogenesis, the seminiferous tubules from stage XII were cultured in the presence or absence of SCF (100 ng/ml) for 8, 24, 48, and 72 hours, respectively, and apoptosis was analyzed by DNA laddering and in situ 3′-end labeling (ISEL) staining. Surprisingly, not only spermatogonia, but also spermatocytes and spermatids, were protected from apoptosis in the presence of SCF. Apoptosis took place much later and was less severe in the SCF-treated tubules than in the controls. Based on previous studies showing that FSH prevents germ cells from undergoing apoptosis in vitro, and that SCF level is increased dramatically in response to FSH stimulation, we also tested if the pro-survival effect of FSH is mediated through SCF by using a function-blocking monoclonal antibody, ACK-2, to block SCF/c-kit interaction. After 24 hours of blockade, the protective effect of FSH was partially abolished, as manifested by DNA laddering and ISEL analyses. The present study demonstrates that SCF acts as an important survival factor for germ cells in the adult rat testis and FSH pro-survival effect on germ cells is mediated partially through the SCF/c-kit pathway.

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