The International Journal of Developmental Biology

Int. J. Dev. Biol. 57: 241 - 253 (2013)

Vol 57, Issue 2-3-4

Special Issue: Male Germ Cells in Development & Tumors

Development of malignant germ cells - the genvironmental hypothesis

Published: 30 May 2013

Leendert H.J. Looijenga*, Ton Van Agthoven and Katharina Biermann

Department of Pathology, Erasmus MC – University Medical Center Rotterdam, Josephine Nefkens Institute, Daniel den Hoed Cancer Center, Rotterdam, The Netherlands


Human germ cell tumors are of interest because of their epidemiology, clinic and patho-biology. Histologically, they are subdivided into various elements, with similarities to embryogenesis. Recent insight triggered development of a higher order division into five types of human germ cell tumors. In the context of male germ cells, only three are relevant; Type I: teratomas and yolk sac tumors of neonates and infants; Type II: seminomas and nonseminomas of (predominantly) adolescents and adults; and Type III: spermatocytic seminomas of the elderly. Various animal models, both occurring spontaneous or induced, are reported, of which their relevance is still a matter of debate. Recent multidisciplinary studies have led to a significant increase in our understanding of the parameters involved in the earliest pathogenetic steps of human germ cells tumors, particularly the seminomas and nonseminomas (Type II). This paper will discuss a number of interesting insights into the normal and aberrant regulation of germ cell development, resulting in the so-called genvironmental hypothesis. This assumes a subtle interaction between environmental- and (epi)genetic parameters, resulting in clinical/phenotypical characteristics. These influence signaling pathways and thereby developmental processes, including gonadal development, germ cell proliferation, maturation and apoptosis. In the case of a disturbed physiology, either due to the germ cell itself, or the micro-environment, embryonic germ cells, during a specific window of sensitization, might be blocked in their maturation, resulting in carcinoma in situ or gonadoblastoma, the precursors of seminomas and nonseminomas. The level of testicularization of the gonad determines the histological composition of the precursor. These insights will allow a better definition of individuals at risk of developing a germ cell malignancy, and allow a better selection of scientific approaches to elucidate the corresponding pathogenesis.


testis, gonad, germ cell tumor, environment

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