Studies using genetic and biochemical probes have suggested that mouse sperm surface galactosyltransferases may participate during fertilization by binding N- acetylglucosamine (GlcNAc) residues in the egg zona pellucida. In light of these results, we examined sperm surface galactosyltransferase activity during in vitro capacitation to determine whether changes in enzymatic activity correlated with fertilizing ability. Results show that surface galactosyltransferases on uncapacitated sperm was preferentially loaded with poly N-acetyllactosamine substrates. As a consequence of capacitation in Ca(++)-containing medium, these polylactosaminyl substrates are spontaneously released from the sperm surface, thereby exposing the sperm galactosyltransferase for binding to the zona pellucida. Sperm capacitation can be mimicked, in the absence of Ca(++), either by washing sperm in Ca(++)-free medium, or by pretreating sperm with antiserum that reacts with the galactosyltransferase substrate. In both instances, sperm galgactosylation of endogenous polylactosaminyl substrates is reduced, coincident with increased galactosylation of exogenous GlcNAc, and increased binding to the zona pellucida. Binding of capacitated sperm to the egg can be inhibited by pronase-digested high molecular weight polyactosaminyl glycoside extracted from epidymal fluids or from undifferentiated F9 embryonal carninoma cells. Thus, these glycosides function as "decapacitation factors" when added back to in vitro fertilization assays. These glycoside "decapacitation factors" inhibit sperm-egg binding by competeing for the sperm surface galactosyltransferase, since (a) they are galactosylated by sperm in the presence of UDP[(3)H]galactose, and (b) enzymatic removal of terminal GlcNAc residues reduces "decapacitation factio" competition. On the other hand "conventional" low molecular weight glycosides, isolated from either epididymal fluid or differentiated F9 cells, fail to inhibit capacitated sperm binding to the zona pellucida. These results define a molecular mechanism for one aspect of sperm capacitation, and help explain why removal of "decapacitation factos" is a necessary prerequisite for sperm binding to the zona pellucida.

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