This study aims to investigate the role of matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs) in determining semen quality and to evaluate the expression and cellular localization of MMP-2, MMP-9, tissue inhibitor of metalloproteinase-1 (TIMP-1) and TIMP-2 in the testes, epididymis and ejaculated spermatozoa. Gelatinase activities between normal (n = 21) and abnormal (n = 25) semen samples showed a significant, sixfold increase in proMMP-2 and MMP-2 activity in high than low sperm concentration samples (p < 0.001). ProMMP-9 and MMP-9 levels were significantly elevated in samples with low sperm counts compared to those with high sperm density (p < 0.001). High levels of proMMP-2 and MMP-2 were associated with high sperm motility (≥70%, p < 0.001). Sperm-rich fraction showed significantly (eight-fold) higher proMMP-9 enzymatic activity compared with prostatic fraction. The mRNA expressions of MMP-2, MMP-9, TIMP-1 and TIMP-2 were confirmed in testicular and epididymal tissues. Immunohistochemical staining illustrated the MMP-2-specific strong immunoreactivity in the head of mature spermatids during spermatogenesis, whereas MMP-9, TIMP-1 and TIMP-2 were absent in these cells. Matrix metalloproteinase-9 immunoreactivity was observed in the spermatocyte and round spermatid, whereas TIMP-1 was only exhibited in the residual bodies. Immunolabeling of epididymal and ejaculated sperm demonstrated MMP-2 localization along acrosomal region of sperm, while MMP-9, TIMP-1 and TIMP-2 localization was merely limited to the flagella. In conclusion, spermatozoa initially acquire MMP-2 during their formation at testicular level, and the presence of this protein persists through the epididymal transit and up to ejaculate. The enzymatic activity of MMP-2 and MMP-9 may serve as an alternative biomarker in determining semen quality
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