The relationship between onset of the early cytoplasmic stages of oocyte activation (vitelline membrane separation and elevation) and nuclear meiotic maturation was investigated in starfish oocytes after their exposure to divalent ionophore (A-23187) or sperm. Meiotically mature oocytes, isolated in calcium-free seawater, underwent activation in response to sperm or ionophore as previously reported. Large, immature starfish oocytes, arrested in prophase I of meiosis (germinal vesicle stage), underwent vitelline membrane elevation when treated with divalent ionophore A-23187 or starfish sperm. Histological studies demonstrated that cortical granule breakdown in the oocyte cortex was associated with vitelline membrane elevation after these treatments. Activation of oocytes by sperm occurred only in response to starfish sperm. Sea urchin, sand dollar, surf clam, or marine worm sperm did not induce vitelline membrane elevation of either immature or mature starfish oocytes. Sperm- or ionophore-activated immature oocytes underwent nuclear maturation after addition of the meiosis-inducing hormone, l-methyladenine; however, parthenogenetic development did not occur and embryonic development was markedly inhibited. In contrast to previous studies, the present results indicate that cytoplasmic activation can be initiated before and without hormone induction of the nuclear maturation process. Differentiation of the oocyte cell surface or cortex reactivity therefore appears to occur during oogenesis rather than as a consequence of maturation. The data further support the view that divalent ions mediate certain of the early activation responses initiated by sperm at the time of fertilization and that synchronization of fertilization to the meiotic process in the oocyte is important for the occurrence of normal development.

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