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Spermatogenesis involves a complex process of cellular differentiation maintained by spermatogonial stem cells (SSCs). Being critical to male reproduction, it is generally assumed that spermatogenesis starts and ends in equivalent transcriptional states in related species. Based on single-cell gene expression profiling, it has been proposed that undifferentiated human spermatogonia can be subclassified into four heterogenous subtypes, termed states 0, 0A, 0B, and 1. To increase the resolution of the undifferentiated compartment and trace the origin of the spermatogenic trajectory, we re-analysed the single-cell (sc) RNA-sequencing libraries of 34 post-pubescent human testes to generate an integrated atlas of germ cell differentiation. We then used this atlas to perform comparative analyses of the putative SSC transcriptome both across human development (using 28 foetal and pre-pubertal scRNA-seq libraries) and across species (including data from sheep, pig, buffalo, rhesus and cynomolgus macaque, rat, and mouse). Alongside its detailed characterisation, we show that the transcriptional heterogeneity of the undifferentiated spermatogonial cell compartment varies not only between species but across development. Our findings associate ‘state 0B’ with a suppressive transcriptomic programme that, in adult humans, acts to functionally oppose proliferation and maintain cells in a ready-to-react state. Consistent with this conclusion, we show that human foetal germ cells—which are mitotically arrested—can be characterised solely as state 0B. While germ cells with a state 0B signature are also present in foetal mice (and are likely conserved at this stage throughout mammals), they are not maintained into adulthood. We conjecture that in rodents, the foetal-like state 0B differentiates at birth into the renewing SSC population, whereas in humans it is maintained as a reserve population, supporting testicular homeostasis over a longer reproductive lifespan while reducing mutagenic load. Together, these results suggest that SSCs adopt differing evolutionary strategies across species to ensure fertility and genome integrity over vastly differing life histories and reproductive timeframes.

Original publication




Journal article





Publication Date





742 - 742