On terminally differentiated sperm cells, surface proteins are segregated into distinct surface domains that include the anterior and posterior head domains. We have analyzed the formation of the anterior and posterior head domains of guinea pig sperm in terms of both the timing of protein localization and the mechanism(s) responsible. On testicular sperm, the surface proteins PH-20, PH-30 and AH-50 were found to be present on the whole cell (PH-20) or whole head surface (PH-30, AH-50). On sperm that have completed differentiation (cauda epididymal sperm), PH-20 and PH-30 proteins were restricted to the posterior head domain and AH-50 was restricted to the anterior head domain. Thus these proteins become restricted in their distribution late in sperm differentiation, after sperm leave the testis. We discovered that the differentiation process that localizes these proteins can be mimicked in vitro by treating testicular sperm with trypsin. After testicular sperm were treated with 20 micrograms/ml trypsin for 5 min at room temperature, PH-20, PH-30, and AH-50 were found localized to the same domains to which they are restricted during in vivo differentiation. The in vitro trypsin-induced localization of PH-20 to the posterior head mimicked the in vivo differentiation process quantitatively as well as qualitatively. The quantitative analysis showed the process of PH-20 localization involves the migration of surface PH-20 from other regions to the posterior head domain. Immunoprecipitation experiments confirmed that there is protease action in vivo on the sperm surface during the late stages of sperm differentiation. Both the PH-20 and PH-30 proteins were shown to be proteolytically cleaved late in sperm differentiation. These findings strongly implicate proteolysis of surface molecules as an initial step in the mechanism of formation of sperm head surface domains.

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