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The average human adult male produces around 1500 sperm cells per second. This wouldn’t be possible without the help of Sertoli cells. In this lesson, we’ll look at the function of Sertoli cells, as well as what they do and what happens when their division gets out of control.

How are Sperm Cells Made?

Before we discuss why Sertoli cells are so important, we need to quickly review the process by which sperm cells are made: spermatogenesis. In mammals, spermatogenesis takes place within the testes in long tubes called seminiferous tubules.

Mammalian testis.

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Number 2 shows convoluted seminiferous tubules, location of Sertoli cells.

Grays anatomy: testis

Sperm cells start as germ cells that are located around the outside of the tubule. Each of these cells divides by meiosis, producing four cells called spermatids. The spermatids mature into spermatozoa, and are released into the lumen, or the center of the tubule.

From here, they are moved into another part of the reproductive system to finish maturation and to gain their ability to swim.

Cross section of seminiferous tubule. Sperm formation begins at the outside and moves toward the middle.
Sertoli cells from Grays anatomy

Sertoli Cell Function

The job of Sertoli cells is to ‘nurse’ developing sperm through this process. Located in the walls of the seminiferous tubules, they are one of the few cells that stay inside the tubules permanently. Let’s take a closer look at some of the specific functions of these cells.

Secretion of Molecules that Direct Spermatogenesis

First, sertoli cells make a number of substances that initiate and regulate sperm production. Probably the most important are molecules called inhibin and activin, proteins that control the actions of FSH (follicle stimulating hormone). Activin ‘activates’ FSH production, while inhibin ‘inhibits’ it. Made in the pituitary gland, FSH’s function in males is to stimulate the first division of sperm cells.

Formation of the Blood-Testis Barrier

Sertoli cells also form the blood-testis barrier. Contact with bacteria, viruses, or toxins of almost any sort present in the blood would have dire consequences for developing sperm cells.

Furthermore, if sperm cells were to enter the bloodstream, the body’s own immune system would attack them. In order to prevent this type of contact, Sertoli cells form structures called tight junctions that divide the seminiferous tubule into two parts: a part that touches blood and lymph, so that these circulatory systems can deliver nutrients and oxygen to working cells of the testes, and a part in which cells have no contact with these substances. Through these junctions, the Sertoli cells control passage of substances between the two parts.

Maintaining the Line and Cleaning Up Debris

Sertoli cells have important roles to play at both ends of spermatogenesis.

A healthy stem cell population is essential for continued spermatogenesis. Sertoli cells keep the germ cells that start the process healthy and nourished. They also function at the end of spermatogenesis by absorbing extra cytoplasm from newly created spermatozoa, just prior to their release into the lumen of the seminiferous tubule.

Sertoli Cell Tumors

Sometimes due to genetics and other factors, Sertoli cells, (sometimes along with some other types of cells in the testes) form neoplasms, or tumors that may or may not be cancerous. Most are benign. Interestingly, these tumors form not only in the testes, but also (rarely) in the ovary. Humans, domestic fowl (like geese and ducks), dogs, and horses are prone to Sertoli cell tumors.

Most commonly they are treated by removal through surgery.

Lesson Summary

Spermatogenesis is the process by which sperm are made in mammals. Sertoli cells play an important role in this process.

They act as ‘nurse’ cells, nourishing and maintaining the developing sperm cells. Sertoli cells also secrete many substances, among them follicle stimulating hormone (FSH), which stimulates the initiation of spermatogenesis. Sertoli cells also can cause tumors, both in the testicle and more rarely in the ovary.

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