The relationship between mitochondrial DNA copy number and stallion sperm function

Christa R. Darr, Luis E. Moraes, Richard E Connon, Charles C. Love, Sheila Teague, Dickson D. Varner, Stuart A Meyers

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) copy number has been utilized as a measure of sperm quality in several species including mice, dogs, and humans, and has been suggested as a potential biomarker of fertility in stallion sperm. The results of the present study extend this recent discovery using sperm samples from American Quarter Horse stallions of varying age. By determining copy number of three mitochondrial genes, cytochrome b (CYTB), NADH dehydrogenase 1 (ND1) and NADH dehydrogenase 4 (ND4), instead of a single gene, we demonstrate an improved understanding of mtDNA fate in stallion sperm mitochondria following spermatogenesis. Sperm samples from 37 stallions ranging from 3 to 24 years old were collected at four breeding ranches in north and central Texas during the 2015 breeding season. Samples were analyzed for sperm motion characteristics, nuclear DNA denaturability and mtDNA copy number. Mitochondrial DNA content in individual sperm was determined by real-time qPCR and normalized with a single copy nuclear gene, Beta actin. Exploratory correlation analysis revealed that total motility was negatively correlated with CYTB copy number and sperm chromatin structure. Stallion age did not have a significant effect on copy number for any of the genes. Copy number differences existed between the three genes with CYTB having the greatest number of copies (20.6 ± 1.2 copies, range: 6.0 to 41.1) followed by ND4 (15.5 ± 0.8 copies, range: 6.7 to 27.8) and finally ND1 (12.0 ± 1.0 copies, range: 0.4 to 26.6) (P < 0.05). Varying copy number across mitochondrial genes is likely to be a result of mtDNA fragmentation and degradation since downregulation of sperm mtDNA occurs during spermatogenesis and may be important for normal sperm function. Beta regression analysis suggested that for every unit increase in mtDNA copy number of CYTB, there was a 4% decrease in the odds of sperm movement (P = 0.001). Influential analysis suggested that results are robust and not highly influenced by data from individual stallions despite the low number of stallions sampled with low sperm motility. Further genome sequencing is necessary to investigate if mutations or deletions are the underlying causes of inconsistent copy numbers across mitochondrial genes. In conclusion, we show, for the first time, that increased mtDNA copy number is associated with decreased total sperm motility in stallions. We therefore suggest that mtDNA copy number may be an indicator of defective spermatogenesis in stallions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)94-99
Number of pages6
StatePublished - May 1 2017


  • Mitochondrial DNA
  • Motility
  • Sperm
  • Stallion

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Small Animals
  • Food Animals
  • Equine
  • Animal Science and Zoology


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