Zonadhesin is the only sperm protein known to bind in a species-specific manner to the zona pellucida. The zonadhesin precursor is a mosaic protein with a predicted transmembrane segment and large extracellular region composed of cell adhesion, mucin, and tandem von Willebrand D domains. Because the precursor possesses a predicted transmembrane segment and localizes to the anterior head, the mature protein was presumed to be a sperm surface zona pellucida-binding protein. In this study of hamster spermatozoa, we demonstrate that zonadhesin does not localize to the sperm surface but is instead a constituent of the acrosomal matrix. Immunoelectron microscopy revealed that distinct targeting pathways during spermiogenesis and sperm maturation in the epididymis result in trafficking of zonadhesin to the acrosomal matrix. In round spermatids, zonadhesin localized specifically to the acrosomal membrane, where it appeared to be evenly distributed between the outer and inner membrane domains. Subsequent redistribution of zonadhesin resulted in its elimination from the inner acrosomal membrane and restriction to the outer acrosomal membrane of the apical and principal segments and the contents of the posterior acrosome. During sperm maturation in the epididymis, zonadhesin dissociated from the outer acrosomal membrane and became incorporated into the forming acrosomal matrix. These data suggest an important structural role for zonadhesin in assembly of the acrosomal matrix and further support the view that the species specificity of zona pellucida adhesion is mediated by egg-binding proteins contained within the acrosome rather than on the periacrosomal plasma membrane.
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