Sperm proteasomes degrade sperm receptor on the egg zona pellucida during mammalian fertilization

Shawn W. Zimmerman, Gaurishankar Manandhar, Young Joo Yi, Satish K. Gupta, Miriam Sutovsky, John F. Odhiambo, Michael D. Powell, David J. Miller, Peter Sutovsky

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Despite decades of research, the mechanism by which the fertilizing spermatozoon penetrates the mammalian vitelline membrane, the zona pellucida (ZP) remains one of the unexplained fundamental events of human/mammalian development. Evidence has been accumulating in support of the 26S proteasome as a candidate for echinoderm, ascidian and mammalian egg coat lysin. Monitoring ZP protein degradation by sperm during fertilization is nearly impossible because those few spermatozoa that penetrate the ZP leave behind a virtually untraceable residue of degraded proteins. We have overcome this hurdle by designing an experimentally consistent in vitro system in which live boar spermatozoa are co-incubated with ZP-proteins (ZPP) solubilized from porcine oocytes. Using this assay, mimicking sperm-egg interactions, we demonstrate that the sperm-borne proteasomes can degrade the sperm receptor protein ZPC. Upon coincubation with motile spermatozoa, the solubilized ZPP, which appear to be ubiquitinated, adhered to sperm acrosomal caps and induced acrosomal exocytosis/formation of the acrosomal shroud. The degradation of the sperm receptor protein ZPC was assessed by Western blotting band-densitometry and proteomics. A nearly identical pattern of sperm receptor degradation, evident already within the first 5 min of coincubation, was observed when the spermatozoa were replaced with the isolated, enzymatically active, sperm-derived proteasomes. ZPC degradation was blocked by proteasomal inhibitors and accelerated by ubiquitin-aldehyde(UBAL), a modified ubiquitin protein that stimulates proteasomal proteolysis. Such a degradation pattern of ZPC is consistent with in vitro fertilization studies, in which proteasomal inhibitors completely blocked fertilization, and UBAL increased fertilization and polyspermy rates. Preincubation of intact zona-enclosed ova with isolated active sperm proteasomes caused digestion, abrasions and loosening of the exposed zonae, and significantly reduced the fertilization/polyspermy rates after IVF, accompanied by en-mass detachment of zona bound sperm. Thus, the sperm borne 26S proteasome is a candidate zona lysin in mammals. This new paradigm has implications for contraception and assisted reproductive technologies in humans, as well as animals.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere17256
JournalPloS one
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2011

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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