6-1-2. Anatomy and Physiology of the Male Reproductive System
Unique for its role in human reproduction, a
The testes are located in a skin-covered, highly pigmented, muscular sack called the
The dartos muscle makes up the subcutaneous muscle layer of the scrotum (Figure 2). It continues internally to make up the scrotal septum, a wall that divides the scrotum into two compartments, each housing one testis. Descending from the internal oblique muscle of the abdominal wall are the two cremaster muscles, which cover each testis like a muscular net. By contracting simultaneously, the dartos and cremaster muscles can elevate the testes in cold weather (or water), moving the testes closer to the body and decreasing the surface area of the scrotum to retain heat. Alternatively, as the environmental temperature increases, the scrotum relaxes, moving the testes farther from the body core and increasing scrotal surface area, which promotes heat loss. Externally, the scrotum has a raised medial thickening on the surface called the raphae.
Paired ovals, the testes are each approximately 4 to 5 cm in length and are housed within the scrotum (see Figure 2). They are surrounded by two distinct layers of protective connective tissue (Figure 3). The outer tunica vaginalis is a serous membrane that has both a parietal and a thin visceral layer. Beneath the tunica vaginalis is the tunica albuginea, a tough, white, dense connective tissue layer covering the testis itself. Not only does the tunica albuginea cover the outside of the testis, it also invaginates to form septa that divide the testis into 300 to 400 structures called lobules. Within the lobules, sperm develop in structures called seminiferous tubules. During the seventh month of the developmental period of a male fetus, each testis moves through the abdominal musculature to descend into the scrotal cavity. This is called the “descent of the testis.” Cryptorchidism is the clinical term used when one or both of the testes fail to descend into the scrotum prior to birth.
Anatomy of the Testis
The tightly coiled
Inside the seminiferous tubules are six different cell types. These include supporting cells called sustentacular cells, as well as five types of developing sperm cells called germ cells. Germ cell development progresses from the basement membrane—at the perimeter of the tubule—toward the lumen. Let’s look more closely at these cell types.
Surrounding all stages of the developing sperm cells are elongate, branching
The least mature cells, the
As just noted, spermatogenesis occurs in the seminiferous tubules that form the bulk of each testis (see Figure 3). The process begins at puberty, after which time sperm are produced constantly throughout a man’s life. One production cycle, from spermatogonia through formed sperm, takes approximately 64 days. A new cycle starts approximately every 16 days, although this timing is not synchronous across the seminiferous tubules. Sperm counts—the total number of sperm a man produces—slowly decline after age 35, and some studies suggest that smoking can lower sperm counts irrespective of age.
The process of spermatogenesis begins with mitosis of the diploid spermatogonia (Figure 4). Because these cells are diploid (2n), they each have a complete copy of the father’s genetic material, or 46 chromosomes. However, mature gametes are haploid (1n), containing 23 chromosomes—meaning that daughter cells of spermatogonia must undergo a second cellular division through the process of meiosis.
Two identical diploid cells result from spermatogonia mitosis. One of these cells remains a spermatogonium, and the other becomes a primary
Structure of Formed Sperm
Sperm are smaller than most cells in the body; in fact, the volume of a sperm cell is 85,000 times less than that of the female gamete. Approximately 100 to 300 million sperm are produced each day, whereas women typically ovulate only one oocyte per month as is true for most cells in the body, the structure of sperm cells speaks to their function. Sperm have a distinctive head, mid-piece, and tail region (Figure 5). The head of the sperm contains the extremely compact haploid nucleus with very little cytoplasm. These qualities contribute to the overall small size of the sperm (the head is only 5 μm long). A structure called the acrosome covers most of the head of the sperm cell as a “cap” that is filled with lysosomal enzymes important for preparing sperm to participate in fertilization. Tightly packed mitochondria fill the mid-piece of the sperm. ATP produced by these mitochondria will power the flagellum, which extends from the neck and the mid-piece through the tail of the sperm, enabling it to move the entire sperm cell. The central strand of the flagellum, the axial filament, is formed from one centriole inside the maturing sperm cell during the final stages of spermatogenesis.
Structure of Sperm
To fertilize an egg, sperm must be moved from the seminiferous tubules in the testes, through the epididymis, and—later during ejaculation—along the length of the penis and out into the female reproductive tract.
Role of the Epididymis
From the lumen of the seminiferous tubules, the immotile sperm are surrounded by testicular fluid and moved to the
During ejaculation, sperm exit the tail of the epididymis and are pushed by smooth muscle contraction to the
Note: Interactive Link Feature:
Watch this video to learn about a vasectomy. As described in this video, a vasectomy is a procedure in which a small section of the ductus (vas) deferens is removed from the scrotum. This interrupts the path taken by sperm through the ductus deferens. If sperm do not exit through the vas, either because the man has had a vasectomy or has not ejaculated, in what region of the testis do they remain?
From each epididymis, each ductus deferens extends superiorly into the abdominal cavity through the
Sperm make up only 5 percent of the final volume of
As sperm pass through the ampulla of the ductus deferens at ejaculation, they mix with fluid from the associated
The fluid, now containing both sperm and seminal vesicle secretions, next moves into the associated
As shown in Figure 1, the centrally located
The prostate normally doubles in size during puberty. At approximately age 25, it gradually begins to enlarge again. This enlargement does not usually cause problems; however, abnormal growth of the prostate, or benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), can cause constriction of the urethra as it passes through the middle of the prostate gland, leading to a number of lower urinary tract symptoms, such as a frequent and intense urge to urinate, a weak stream, and a sensation that the bladder has not emptied completely. By age 60, approximately 40 percent of men have some degree of BPH. By age 80, the number of affected individuals has jumped to as many as 80 percent. Treatments for BPH attempt to relieve the pressure on the urethra so that urine can flow more normally. Mild to moderate symptoms are treated with medication, whereas severe enlargement of the prostate is treated by surgery in which a portion of the prostate tissue is removed.
Another common disorder involving the prostate is prostate cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), prostate cancer is the second most common cancer in men. However, some forms of prostate cancer grow very slowly and thus may not ever require treatment. Aggressive forms of prostate cancer, in contrast, involve metastasis to vulnerable organs like the lungs and brain. There is no link between BPH and prostate cancer, but the symptoms are similar. Prostate cancer is detected by a medical history, a blood test, and a rectal exam that allows physicians to palpate the prostate and check for unusual masses. If a mass is detected, the cancer diagnosis is confirmed by biopsy of the cells.
The final addition to semen is made by two
Note: Interactive Link Feature
Watch this video to explore the structures of the male reproductive system and the path of sperm, which starts in the testes and ends as the sperm leave the penis through the urethra. Where are sperm deposited after they leave the ejaculatory duct?
Cross-Sectional Anatomy of the Penis
The shaft of the penis surrounds the urethra (Figure 6). The shaft is composed of three column-like chambers of erectile tissue that span the length of the shaft. Each of the two larger lateral chambers is called a
Both sexual arousal and REM sleep (during which dreaming occurs) can induce an erection. Penile erections are the result of vasocongestion, or engorgement of the tissues because of more arterial blood flowing into the penis than is leaving in the veins. During sexual arousal, nitric oxide (NO) is released from nerve endings near blood vessels within the corpora cavernosa and spongiosum. Release of NO activates a signaling pathway that results in relaxation of the smooth muscles that surround the penile arteries, causing them to dilate. This dilation increases the amount of blood that can enter the penis and induces the endothelial cells in the penile arterial walls to also secrete NO and perpetuate the vasodilation. The rapid increase in blood volume fills the erectile chambers, and the increased pressure of the filled chambers compresses the thin-walled penile venules, preventing venous drainage of the penis. The result of this increased blood flow to the penis and reduced blood return from the penis is erection. Depending on the flaccid dimensions of a penis, it can increase in size slightly or greatly during erection, with the average length of an erect penis measuring approximately 15 cm.
Note: Disorders of the… Feature
Male Reproductive System
Erectile dysfunction (ED) is a condition in which a man has difficulty either initiating or maintaining an erection. The combined prevalence of minimal, moderate, and complete ED is approximately 40 percent in men at age 40, and reaches nearly 70 percent by 70 years of age. In addition to aging, ED is associated with diabetes, vascular disease, psychiatric disorders, prostate disorders, the use of some drugs such as certain antidepressants, and problems with the testes resulting in low testosterone concentrations. These physical and emotional conditions can lead to interruptions in the vasodilation pathway and result in an inability to achieve an erection.
Recall that the release of NO induces relaxation of the smooth muscles that surround the penile arteries, leading to the vasodilation necessary to achieve an erection. To reverse the process of vasodilation, an enzyme called phosphodiesterase (PDE) degrades a key component of the NO signaling pathway called cGMP. There are several different forms of this enzyme, and PDE type 5 is the type of PDE found in the tissues of the penis. Scientists discovered that inhibiting PDE5 increases blood flow, and allows vasodilation of the penis to occur.
PDEs and the vasodilation signaling pathway are found in the vasculature in other parts of the body. In the 1990s, clinical trials of a PDE5 inhibitor called sildenafil were initiated to treat hypertension and angina pectoris (chest pain caused by poor blood flow through the heart). The trial showed that the drug was not effective at treating heart conditions, but many men experienced erection and priapism (erection lasting longer than 4 hours). Because of this, a clinical trial was started to investigate the ability of sildenafil to promote erections in men suffering from ED. In 1998, the FDA approved the drug, marketed as Viagra®. Since approval of the drug, sildenafil and similar PDE inhibitors now generate over a billion dollars a year in sales, and are reported to be effective in treating approximately 70 to 85 percent of cases of ED. Importantly, men with health problems—especially those with cardiac disease taking nitrates—should avoid Viagra or talk to their physician to find out if they are a candidate for the use of this drug, as deaths have been reported for at-risk users.
Testosterone, an androgen, is a steroid hormone produced by
Functions of Testosterone
The continued presence of testosterone is necessary to keep the male reproductive system working properly, and Leydig cells produce approximately 6 to 7 mg of testosterone per day. Testicular steroidogenesis (the manufacture of androgens, including testosterone) results in testosterone concentrations that are 100 times higher in the testes than in the circulation. Maintaining these normal concentrations of testosterone promotes spermatogenesis, whereas low levels of testosterone can lead to infertility. In addition to intratesticular secretion, testosterone is also released into the systemic circulation and plays an important role in muscle development, bone growth, the development of secondary sex characteristics, and maintaining libido (sex drive) in both males and females. In females, the ovaries secrete small amounts of testosterone, although most is converted to estradiol. A small amount of testosterone is also secreted by the adrenal glands in both sexes.
Control of Testosterone
The regulation of testosterone concentrations throughout the body is critical for male reproductive function. The intricate interplay between the endocrine system and the reproductive system is shown in Figure 7.
The regulation of Leydig cell production of testosterone begins outside of the testes. The hypothalamus and the pituitary gland in the brain integrate external and internal signals to control testosterone synthesis and secretion. The regulation begins in the hypothalamus. Pulsatile release of a hormone called
A negative feedback loop predominantly controls the synthesis and secretion of both FSH and LH. Low blood concentrations of testosterone stimulate the hypothalamic release of GnRH. GnRH then stimulates the anterior pituitary to secrete LH into the bloodstream. In the testis, LH binds to LH receptors on Leydig cells and stimulates the release of testosterone. When concentrations of testosterone in the blood reach a critical threshold, testosterone itself will bind to androgen receptors on both the hypothalamus and the anterior pituitary, inhibiting the synthesis and secretion of GnRH and LH, respectively. When the blood concentrations of testosterone once again decline, testosterone no longer interacts with the receptors to the same degree and GnRH and LH are once again secreted, stimulating more testosterone production. This same process occurs with FSH and inhibin to control spermatogenesis.
Note: Aging and the… Feature
Male Reproductive System
Declines in Leydig cell activity can occur in men beginning at 40 to 50 years of age. The resulting reduction in circulating testosterone concentrations can lead to symptoms of andropause, also known as male menopause. While the reduction in sex steroids in men is akin to female menopause, there is no clear sign—such as a lack of a menstrual period—to denote the initiation of andropause. Instead, men report feelings of fatigue, reduced muscle mass, depression, anxiety, irritability, loss of libido, and insomnia. A reduction in spermatogenesis resulting in lowered fertility is also reported, and sexual dysfunction can also be associated with andropausal symptoms.
Whereas some researchers believe that certain aspects of andropause are difficult to tease apart from aging in general, testosterone replacement is sometimes prescribed to alleviate some symptoms. Recent studies have shown a benefit from androgen replacement therapy on the new onset of depression in elderly men; however, other studies caution against testosterone replacement for long-term treatment of andropause symptoms, showing that high doses can sharply increase the risk of both heart disease and prostate cancer.
Gametes are the reproductive cells that combine to form offspring. Organs called gonads produce the gametes, along with the hormones that regulate human reproduction. The male gametes are called sperm. Spermatogenesis, the production of sperm, occurs within the seminiferous tubules that make up most of the testis. The scrotum is the muscular sac that holds the testes outside of the body cavity.
Spermatogenesis begins with mitotic division of spermatogonia (stem cells) to produce primary spermatocytes that undergo the two divisions of meiosis to become secondary spermatocytes, then the haploid spermatids. During spermiogenesis, spermatids are transformed into spermatozoa (formed sperm). Upon release from the seminiferous tubules, sperm are moved to the epididymis where they continue to mature. During ejaculation, sperm exit the epididymis through the ductus deferens, a duct in the spermatic cord that leaves the scrotum. The ampulla of the ductus deferens meets the seminal vesicle, a gland that contributes fructose and proteins, at the ejaculatory duct. The fluid continues through the prostatic urethra, where secretions from the prostate are added to form semen. These secretions help the sperm to travel through the urethra and into the female reproductive tract. Secretions from the bulbourethral glands protect sperm and cleanse and lubricate the penile (spongy) urethra.
The penis is the male organ of copulation. Columns of erectile tissue called the corpora cavernosa and corpus spongiosum fill with blood when sexual arousal activates vasodilatation in the blood vessels of the penis. Testosterone regulates and maintains the sex organs and sex drive, and induces the physical changes of puberty. Interplay between the testes and the endocrine system precisely control the production of testosterone with a negative feedback loop.
Interactive Link Questions
Watch this video to learn about vasectomy. As described in this video, a vasectomy is a procedure in which a small section of the ductus (vas) deferens is removed from the scrotum. This interrupts the path taken by sperm through the ductus deferens. If sperm do not exit through the vas, either because the man has had a vasectomy or has not ejaculated, in what region of the testis do they remain?
Sperm remain in the epididymis until they degenerate.
Watch this video to explore the structures of the male reproductive system and the path of sperm that starts in the testes and ends as the sperm leave the penis through the urethra. Where are sperm deposited after they leave the ejaculatory duct?
Sperm enter the prostate.
What are male gametes called?
Leydig cells ________.
Which hypothalamic hormone contributes to the regulation of the male reproductive system?
What is the function of the epididymis?
Spermatogenesis takes place in the ________.
Critical Thinking Questions
Briefly explain why mature gametes carry only one set of chromosomes.
A single gamete must combine with a gamete from an individual of the opposite sex to produce a fertilized egg, which has a complete set of chromosomes and is the first cell of a new individual.
What special features are evident in sperm cells but not in somatic cells, and how do these specializations function?
Unlike somatic cells, sperm are haploid. They also have very little cytoplasm. They have a head with a compact nucleus covered by an acrosome filled with enzymes, and a mid-piece filled with mitochondria that power their movement. They are motile because of their tail, a structure containing a flagellum, which is specialized for movement.
What do each of the three male accessory glands contribute to the semen?
The three accessory glands make the following contributions to semen: the seminal vesicle contributes about 60 percent of the semen volume, with fluid that contains large amounts of fructose to power the movement of sperm; the prostate gland contributes substances critical to sperm maturation; and the bulbourethral glands contribute a thick fluid that lubricates the ends of the urethra and the vagina and helps to clean urine residues from the urethra.
Describe how penile erection occurs.
During sexual arousal, nitric oxide (NO) is released from nerve endings near blood vessels within the corpora cavernosa and corpus spongiosum. The release of NO activates a signaling pathway that results in relaxation of the smooth muscles that surround the penile arteries, causing them to dilate. This dilation increases the amount of blood that can enter the penis, and induces the endothelial cells in the penile arterial walls to secrete NO, perpetuating the vasodilation. The rapid increase in blood volume fills the erectile chambers, and the increased pressure of the filled chambers compresses the thin-walled penile venules, preventing venous drainage of the penis. An erection is the result of this increased blood flow to the penis and reduced blood return from the penis.
While anabolic steroids (synthetic testosterone) bulk up muscles, they can also affect testosterone production in the testis. Using what you know about negative feedback, describe what would happen to testosterone production in the testis if a male takes large amounts of synthetic testosterone.
Testosterone production by the body would be reduced if a male were taking anabolic steroids. This is because the hypothalamus responds to rising testosterone levels by reducing its secretion of GnRH, which would in turn reduce the anterior pituitary’s release of LH, finally reducing the manufacture of testosterone in the testes.
gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH)