A consistent feature of sperm nuclei is its exceptionally compact state in comparison with somatic nuclei. Here, we have examined the structural organization of sperm chromatin from representatives of three vertebrate lineages, bony fish (Danio rerio), birds (Gallus gallus domesticus) and mammals (Mus musculus) using light and transmission electron microscopy (TEM). Although the three sperm nuclei are all highly compact, they differ in morphology and in the complement of compaction-inducing proteins. Whereas zebrafish sperm retain somatic histones and a nucleosomal organization, in the rooster and mouse, histones are largely replaced by small, arginine-rich protamines. In contrast to the mouse, the rooster protamine contains no cysteine residues and lacks the potential stabilizing effects of S-S bonds. Protamine driven chromatin compaction results in a stable, highly condensed chromatin, markedly different from the somatic nucleosome-based beads-on-a-string architecture, but its structure remains poorly understood. When prepared gently for whole mount TEM, the rooster and mouse sperm chromatin reveal striking rod-like units 40-50 nm in width. Also present in the mouse, which has very flattened sperm nuclei, but not rooster, where nuclei take the form of elongated cylinders, are toroidal shaped structures, with an external diameter of about 90 nm. In contrast, similarly prepared zebrafish sperm exhibit nucleosomal chromatin. We also examined the early stages in the binding of salmine (the salmon protamine) to defined sequence DNA. These images suggest an initial side-by-side binding of linear DNA-protamine complexes leading to the nucleation of thin, flexible rods with the potential to bend, allowing the ends to come into contact and fuse to form toroidal structures. We discuss the relationship between these in vitro observations and the rods and toroids seen in nuclei, and suggest an explanation for the apparent absence of these structures in TEM images of fully condensed sperm nuclei.
Ausió, Juan, Rodrigo González-Romero, Christopher L. Woodcock
Journal of Structural Biology