Ejaculated mammalian sperm must complete a final maturation, termed capacitation, before they can undergo acrosomal exocytosis and fertilize an egg. In human sperm, loss of sperm sterol is an obligatory, early event in capacitation. How sterol loss leads to acrosomal responsiveness is unknown. These experiments tested the hypothesis that loss of sperm sterol affects the organization of cold detergent-resistant membrane microdomains (lipid “rafts”). The GPI-linked protein CD59, the ganglioside GM1, and the protein flotillin-2 were used as markers for lipid rafts. In uncapacitated sperm, 51% of the CD59, 41% of the GM1, and 90% of the flotillin-2 were found in the raft fraction. During capacitation, sperm lost 67% of their 3β-hydroxysterols, and the percentages of CD59 and GM1 in the raft fraction decreased to 34% and 31%, respectively. The distribution of flotillin-2 did not change. Preventing a net loss of sperm sterol prevented the loss of CD59 and GM1 from the raft fraction. Fluorescence microscopy showed CD59 and GM1 to be distributed over the entire sperm surface. Flotillin-2 was located mainly in the posterior head and midpiece. Patching using bivalent antibodies indicated that little of the GM1 and CD59 was stably associated in the same membrane rafts. Likewise, GM1 and flotillin-2 were not associated in the same membrane rafts. In summary, lipid rafts of heterogeneous composition were identified in human sperm and the two raft components, GM1 and CD59, showed a partial sterol loss-dependent shift to the nonraft domain during capacitation.
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