Researchers at Yale University have discovered how the “guardian of the genome” monitors the quality control in the production of sperm and potentially other cells, too.

Sperm and other cells go through an inspection process triggered by regulatory gene p53, which orders the destruction of cells with damaged DNA. This ability has earned it the title of “guardian of the genome,” and damage to p53 has been implicated in many forms of cancer.

The Yale team found among more than 1,500 micro-RNA molecules involved in many cellular processes, a regulator called Pumilo 1 controls eight that interact with p53 in sperm production. When Pumilo 1 is deleted in mice, sperm production and fertility are reduced because p53 becomes overactive and orders the destruction of too many sperm.

The mechanism may play a key role in male fertility, but it could also be implicated in many biological processes because protection of DNA is so fundamental to life, noted Haifan Lin, professor of cell biology and of genetics, director of the Yale Stem Cell Center, and senior author of the study.

“This is a crucial gate-keeping mechanism which allows bad cells, but not good cells, to be killed,” said Lin. “This same process may be at play in other tissues, such as cancer.”

Lin said the findings may open up avenues for development of new forms of birth control and fertility treatments, as well as new ways to combat cancer.

Study findings were published in the journal Current Biology.

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