Sperm-mediated gene transfer: applications and implications
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Recent developments in studies of sperm-mediated gene transfer (SMGT) now provide solid ground for the notion that sperm cells can act as vectors for exogenous genetic sequences. A substantive body of evidence indicates that SMGT is potentially useable in animal transgenesis, but also suggests that the final fate of the exogenous sequences transferred by sperm is not always predictable. The analysis of SMGT-derived offspring has shown the existence of integrated foreign sequences in some cases, while in others stable modifications of the genome are difficult to detect. The appearance of SMGT-derived modified offspring on the one hand and, on the other hand, the rarity of actual modification of the genome, suggest inheritance as extrachromosomal structures. Several specific factors have been identified that mediate distinct steps in SMGT. Among those, a prominent role is played by an endogenous reverse transcriptase of retrotransposon origin. Mature spermatozoa are naturally protected against the intrusion of foreign nucleic acid molecules; however, particular environmental conditions, such as those occurring during human assisted reproduction, can abolish this protection. The possibility that sperm cells under these conditions carry genetic sequences affecting the integrity or identity of the host genome should be critically considered. These considerations further suggest the possibility that SMGT events may occasionally take place in nature, with profound implications for evolutionary processes.