Leydig cells: Formation, function, and regulation

Barry R. Zirkin, Vassilios Papadopoulos

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

85 Scopus citations


Herein we summarize important discoveries made over many years about Leydig cell function and regulation. Fetal Leydig cells produce the high levels of androgen (testosterone or androstenedione, depending upon the species) required for differentiation of male genitalia and brain masculinization. Androgen production declines with loss of these cells, reaching a nadir at postpartum. Testosterone then gradually increases to high levels with adult Leydig cell development from stem cells. In the adult, luteinizing hormone (LH) binding to Leydig cell LH receptors stimulates cAMP production, increasing the rate of cholesterol translocation into the mitochondria. Cholesterol is metabolized to pregnenolone by the CYP11A1 enzyme at the inner mitochondrial membrane, and pregnenolone to testosterone by mitochondria and smooth endoplasmic reticulum enzymes. Cholesterol translocation to the inner mitochondrial membrane is mediated by a protein complex formed at mitochondrial contact sites that consists of the cholesterol binding translocator protein, voltage dependent anion channel, and other mitochondrial and cytosolic proteins. Steroidogenic acute regulatory protein acts at this complex to enhance cholesterol movement across the membranes and thus increase testosterone formation. The 14-3-3γ and ϵ adaptor proteins serve as negative regulators of steroidogenesis, controlling the maximal amount of steroid formed. Decline in testosterone production occurs in many aging and young men, resulting inmetabolic and quality-of-life changes. Testosterone replacement therapy is widely used to elevate serum testosterone levels in hypogonadal men. With knowledge gained of the mechanisms involved in testosterone formation, it is also conceivable to use pharmacological means to increase serum testosterone by Leydig cell stimulation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)101-111
Number of pages11
JournalBiology of reproduction
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jul 1 2018


  • Androgen
  • Hormone action
  • Hypogonadism
  • Mitochondria
  • Steroid hormones
  • Testosterone

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Reproductive Medicine
  • Cell Biology


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