Fetal testis organ culture reproduces the dynamics of epigenetic reprogramming in rat gonocytes
The regulation of early fetal germ cell growth has not been studied in cell culture, probably due to the poor survival of these cells. However, cell culture is the only system in which the control of cell growth can be studied independently of the influence of secreted testicular factors, which are diluted in the medium. We successfully cultured dispersed testicular cells from 16.5-day-old rat fetuses in defined medium and compared the growth of these cells with that of cells from 3-day-old neonates. In this system, fetal gonocytes displayed low levels of mitotic activity and their numbers remained stable. In contrast, neonatal gonocytes displayed high levels of mitotic activity and increased in number, these characteristics resembling those observed in vivo. We found that retinoic acid had deleterious effects on the number of gonocytes but did not affect Sertoli cell proliferation in fetal and neonatal cell cultures. Moreover, in fetal cell cultures, the decrease in the number of gonocytes resulted from a decrease in mitotic activity, probably due to a direct effect of retinoids on fetal gonocytes. Among the selective agonists for the retinoic acid receptor (RARalpha agonist, RARbeta agonist, and RARgamma agonist) and the retinoic X receptor (pan-RXR agonist) tested, only the RARalpha agonist reproduced the effects of retinoic acid at concentrations lower than its Kd value in both fetal and neonatal cell cultures. As both RARalpha and RXRalpha are present in fetal and neonatal gonocytes, we suggest that retinoic acid exerts its effects on gonocytes via a RARalpha-RXRalpha heterodimer, with RARalpha functioning as an active partner and RXRalpha as a passive partner. In this culture system, we show for the first time that triiodothyronine (T3) inhibits testicular fetal Sertoli cell and germ cell growth. We also tested intracellular signaling factors and found that a cAMP analog increased Sertoli cell proliferation and germ cell survival in both fetal and neonatal cells whereas phorbol esters (PMA) strongly inhibited the proliferation of fetal but not of neonatal gonocytes. None of the tested factors (T3, dbcAMP, and PMA) seemed to interact with the all-trans retinoic acid pathway. Thus, fetal gonocytes and neonatal gonocytes differ in intrinsic properties, and their growth is not regulated in the same manner. Despite their low level of mitotic activity, fetal gonocytes were more sensitive to various factors than neonatal gonocytes.