Reshuffling the genetic code

The proteins PRDM9 and ZCWPW1 generate genetic diversity by controlling the exchange of genetic information during the formation of sex cells in mice.
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Image showing the chromosomes (green) of an immature sperm cell in the testis of a mouse lacking ZCWPW1, which are unable to pair (represented by the magenta signal) and exchange genes. Image credit: Daniela Moralli (CC BY 4.0)

Sexual reproduction – that is, the combination of sex cells from two different individuals to produce an embryo – is one of the many mechanisms that have evolved to maintain genetic diversity. Most human cells contain 23 pairs of chromosomes, with each chromosome in a pair carrying either a paternal or maternal copy of the same gene. To form an embryo with the right number of chromosomes, each sex cell (the egg or sperm cell) must only contain one chromosome from each pair.

Sex cells are produced from parent cells containing two sets of paternal and maternal chromosomes: these cells then divide twice to form four sex cells which contain only one chromosome from each pair. Before the parent cell divides, a process known as ‘recombination’ takes place, which allows chromosomes in a pair to exchange bits of genetic information. This reshuffling ensures that each chromosome in a sex cell is unique. A protein called PRDM9 helps control which sections of genetic information are recombined by modifying proteins attached to the chromosomes, marking them as locations for exchange. The DNA at each of these sites is then broken and repaired using the genetic sequence of the chromosome it is paired with as a template, thus causing the two chromosomes to swap genes.

In 2019, a group of researchers found a set of genes in the testis of mice that are expressed at the same time as the gene for PRDM9. This suggested that another protein called ZCWPW1 is likely involved in recombination, but the precise role of this protein was unclear. To answer this question, Wells, Bitoun et al. – including many of the researchers involved in the 2019 study – examined human cells grown in the laboratory to determine where ZCWPW1 binds to in the chromosome.

This revealed that ZCWPW1 can be found at the same sites as PRDM9, which is responsible for bringing it there. Furthermore, cells from male mice lacking the gene for ZCWPW1 cannot complete the exchange of genetic information between chromosomes, meaning that the mice are infertile. As such, ZCWPW1 seems to connect location selection by PRDM9 to the DNA repair mechanisms needed for gene exchange between chromosomes.

Infertility is a significant issue for humans affecting as many as one in every six couples. Fertility is complex and many of the biological mechanisms involved are not fully understood. This work suggests that both PRDM9 and ZCWPW1 are key to the production of sex cells and may be worth investigating as factors that affect fertility in humans.