An interdisciplinary research team led by the deans of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Schools of Medicine and Engineering has for the first time explained the association between human height and a specific protein-coding gene that is found in sperm.
Although the sperm associated antigen 17 (SPAG17) gene has been linked to human height in previous studies, it was not clear how the gene influences linear growth and skeletal development until now. VCU researchers found that a targeted mutation in the gene leads to skeletal malformations in mice, such as a shortened hind limb length, fused segments of the sternum and defects in bone mineralization.
Humans have the SPAG17 gene and genetic variants in that gene are associated with stature. “The mouse tells us the relationship between SPAG17 and bone length, which would explain why there is an association with height,” said Jerome F. Strauss III, M.D., Ph.D., dean of the VCU School of Medicine.
Strauss is a professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and researchers in his lab encountered the SPAG17 gene while they were investigating genes that affect male infertility. SPAG17 is one of the genes that controls sperm motility, so the researchers created a mouse that does not produce SPAG17, expecting to find a phenotype that exhibited male infertility.
“It turned out that this animal had other defects that we hadn’t anticipated,” said Maria Teves, Ph.D., who is a postdoctorate researcher in Strauss’ lab and was the first author in a study titled “SPAG17 Deficiency Results in Skeletal Malformations and Bone Abnormalities,” which will be published in PLOS ONE journal at 2 p.m. on May 27. “The animals died within 12 hours of birth, their tibia and femur were shorter than the wild-type mice, and they had skeletal malformations and bone mineralization defects.”