Prenatal dexamethasone exposure impairs rat blood-testis barrier function and sperm quality in adult offspring via GR/KDM1B/FSTL3/TGFβ signaling

Yi Liu1,2, Si-jia Chen1,2, Can Ai1,2, Peng-xia Yu1,2, Man Fang1, Hui Wang1,2,3
1 Department of Pharmacology, Wuhan University School of Basic Medical Sciences, Wuhan 430071, China
2 Hubei Provincial Key Laboratory of Developmentally Originated Disease, Wuhan 430071, China
3 Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Zhongnan Hospital of Wuhan University, Wuhan 430071, China
Correspondence to: Hui Wang:,
DOI: 10.1038/s41401-024-01244-5
Received: 22 October 2023
Accepted: 15 February 2024
Advance online: 12 March 2024


Both epidemiological and animal studies suggest that adverse environment during pregnancy can change the offspring development programming, but it is difficult to achieve prenatal early warning. In this study we investigated the impact of prenatal dexamethasone exposure (PDE) on sperm quality and function of blood-testis barrier (BTB) in adult offspring and the underlying mechanisms. Pregnant rats were injected with dexamethasone (0.1, 0.2 and 0.4 mg·kg-1·d-1, s.c.) from GD9 to GD20. After weaning (PW4), the pups were fed with lab chow. At PW12 and PW28, the male offspring were euthanized to collect blood and testes samples. We showed that PDE significantly decreased sperm quality (including quantity and motility) in male offspring, which was associated with impaired BTB and decreased CX43/E-cadherin expression in the testis. We demonstrated that PDE induced morphological abnormalities of fetal testicle and Sertoli cell development originated from intrauterine. By tracing to fetal testicular Sertoli cells, we found that PDE dose-dependently increased expression of histone lysine demethylases (KDM1B), decreasing histone 3 lysine 9 dimethylation (H3K9me2) levels of follistatin-like-3 (FSTL3) promoter region and increased FSTL3 expression, and inhibited TGFβ signaling and CX43/E-cadherin expression in offspring before and after birth. These results were validated in TM4 Sertoli cells following dexamethasone treatment. Meanwhile, the H3K9me2 levels of FSTL3 promoter in maternal peripheral blood mononuclear cell (PBMC) and placenta were decreased and its expression increased, which was positively correlated with the changes in offspring testis. Based on analysis of human samples, we found that the H3K9me2 levels of FSTL3 promoter in maternal blood PBMC and placenta were positively correlated with fetal blood testosterone levels after prenatal dexamethasone exposure. We conclude that PDE can reduce sperm quality in adult offspring rats, which is related to the damage of testis BTB via epigenetic modification and change of FSTL3 expression in Sertoli cells. The H3K9me2 levels of the FSTL3 promoter and its expression in the maternal blood PBMC can be used as a prenatal warning marker for fetal testicular dysplasia.

Keywords: prenatal dexamethasone exposure; testicular dysplasia; blood-testis barrier; FSTL3; H3K9me2; prenatal warning markers

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