BACKGROUND A key step in studying the biology of spermatogonia is to determine their global gene expression profile. However, disassociation of these cells from the testis may alter their profile to a considerable degree. To characterize the molecular phenotype of human spermatogonia, including spermatogonial stem cells (SSCs), within their cognate microenvironment, a rare subtype of human defective spermatogenesis was exploited in which spermatogonia were the only germ cell type. METHODS The global expression profile of these samples was assessed on the Affymetrix microarray platform and compared with tissues showing homogeneous Sertoli-cell-only appearance; selected genes were validated by quantitative real-time PCR and immunohistochemistry on disparate sample sets. RESULTS Highly significant differences in gene expression levels correlated with the appearance of spermatogonia, including 239 best candidates of human spermatogonially expressed genes. Specifically, fibroblast growth factor receptor 3 (FGFR3), desmoglein 2 (DSG2), E3 ubiquitin ligase c-CBL (casitas B-cell lymphoma), cancer/testis antigen NY-ESO-1 (CTAG1A/B), undifferentiated embryonic cell transcription factor 1 (UTF1) and synaptosomal-associated protein, 91 kDa homolog (SNAP91) were shown to represent specific biomarkers of human spermatogonia. CONCLUSIONS These biomarkers, specifically the surface markers FGFR3 and DSG2, may facilitate the isolation and enrichment of human stem and/or progenitor spermatogonia and thus lay a foundation for studies of long-term maintenance of human SSCs/progenitor cells, spermatogonial self-renewal, clonal expansion and differentiation.
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