The International Journal of Developmental Biology

Int. J. Dev. Biol. 57: 299 - 308 (2013)

Vol 57, Issue 2-3-4

Special Issue: Male Germ Cells in Development & Tumors

Role of epigenetics in the etiology of germ cell cancer

Published: 30 May 2013

Yvonne G. Van Der Zwan1, Hans Stoop1, Fernando Rossello2,Stefan J. White2 and Leendert H.J. Looijenga1

1Department of Pathology, Erasmus MC – University Medical Center Rotterdam, Josephine Nefkens Institute, Rotterdam, The Netherlands, 2Centre for Cancer Research, Monash Institute of Medical Research, Monash University, Clayton and 3Centre for Reproduction and Development, Monash Institute of Medical Research, Monash University, Clayton, Victoria, Australia.


Embryonic development is strictly controlled by functionality of genes in which the existing networks can act both on transcription and translation regulation. Germ cell cancers (GCC) are unique because of a number of characteristics. In spite of their clinical presentation, i.e., predominantly after puberty, they arise from primordial germ cells/gonocytes that have failed appropriate maturation to either pre-spermatogonia or oogonia. GCC mimic embryonal development to a certain extent, including capacity for totipotency. This knowledge has allowed the identification of informative diagnostic markers, including OCT3/4 (POU5F1), SOX2 and SOX17. An additional marker is the overall demethylated status of the genome. Genetic mutations in GCC are rare, which is exceptional for solid cancers. Our hypothesis is that a disturbed epigenetic regulation (through combined interaction of genetic or environmental parameters; referred to as genvironment) affect embryonic germ cell development, resulting in delayed or blocked maturation, and potentially progression to GCC. In this respect, studies of patients with Disorders of Sex Development (DSD) have increased our knowledge significantly. Genvironmental influences can lead to retention of existence of embryonic germ cells, the first step in the pathogenesis of GCC, resulting into the precursor lesions gonadoblastoma or carcinoma in situ. Identification of epigenetic alterations could lead to better understanding these processes and development of specific markers for early detection, eventually leading to development of targeted treatment. This review describes an interactive model related to the role of epigenetics in GCC pathogenesis, focusing on DNA methylation, histone modifications, epigenetic memory and inheritance, as well as environmental factors.


germ cell cancer, epigenetics, methylation, histone modification, environment

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