Ejaculated mammalian sperm must mature (capacitate) before they can undergo acrosomal exocytosis and fertilize an egg. Loss of sperm sterols is an early step in capacitation. Because sphingomyelin slows cholesterol efflux from other cells, the role of sphingomyelin in capacitation was tested. Human sperm were exposed to sphingomyelinase and then incubated for as long as 24 h. The ability of sperm to acrosome-react in response to progesterone was tested to measure capacitation. Sphingomyelinase-treated sperm became responsive to progesterone approximately 10 h earlier than control sperm. Sphingomyelinase also increased spontaneous acrosomal exocytosis. The effects of sphingomyelinase were accompanied by accelerated losses of the inhibitory sterols, cholesterol and desmosterol. To test whether sphingomyelinase-generated ceramide might promote capacitation, sperm were incubated for 8 h with the cell-permeable ceramide N-hexanoylsphingosine (25 μM) or with solvent. Ceramide increased the incidence of progesterone-responsive sperm and, at later times, spontaneously reacted sperm. N-Hexanoylsphinganine, an inactive control ceramide, had no effect. These results suggest that sphingomyelin in the sperm influences the rate of capacitation by slowing the loss of sterols, and that exogenous sphingomyelinase accelerates capacitation by speeding the loss of sterols and by generating ceramide.
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