Analysis of complex signalisation networks involving distinct cell types is required to understand most developmental processes. Differentiation of male germ cells in adult mammals involves such a cross-talk between Sertoli cells, the somatic component which supports and controls germinal differentiation, and germ cells at their successive maturation stages. We developed a gene trapping strategy to identify genes, which, in Sertoli cells, are either up- or down-regulated by signals emitted by the germinal component. A library of approximately 2,000 clones was constituted from colonies independently selected from the Sertoli line 15P-1 by growth in drug-containing medium after random integration of a promoter-less (beta)geo transgene (neo(r)-lacZ fusion), which will be expressed as a fusion transcript from a ‘trapped’ cellular promoter, different in each clone. A first screen conducted on 700 events identified six clones in which beta-galactosidase activity was increased and one in which it was repressed upon addition of germ cells. The targeted loci were identified by cloning and sequencing the genomic region 5′ of the insert. One of them was identified as the gene encoding Fra1, a component of the AP1 transcription regulatory complex. Accumulation of Fra1 mRNA was induced, both in 15P-1 and in freshly explanted Sertoli cells, by addition of either round spermatids or nerve growth factor (NGF). The effect of NGF was mediated by the TrkA receptor and the ERK1-ERK2 kinase kinase pathway. Fos and Fra1 transcription were induced within the first hour after addition of the neurotrophin, but, unlike what is observed after serum induction in the same cells, a second wave of transcription of Fra1, but not of Fos, started 16 hours later and peaked at higher levels at about 20 hours. These results suggest that AP1 activation may be an important relay in the Sertoli-germ cell cross-talk, and validate the gene trapping approach as a tool for the identification of target genes in cell culture systems.

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