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Reproduction. 2004 Apr;127(4):417-22.

Insights into the molecular basis of sperm-egg recognition in mammals.

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  • 1Laboratory of Cellular and Developmental Biology, NIDDK, Building 50, Room 3128, National Institutes of Health, 50 South Drive, MSC 8028, Bethesda, Maryland 20892, USA.


The zona pellucida surrounding the egg and pre-implantation embryo is required for in vivo fertility and early development. Explanatory models of sperm-egg recognition need to take into account the ability of sperm to bind to ovulated eggs, but not to two-cell embryos. For the last two decades, investigators have sought to identify an individual protein or carbohydrate side chain as the 'sperm receptor'. However, recent genetic data in mice are more consistent with the three-dimensional structure of the zona pellucida, rather than a single protein (or carbohydrate), determining sperm binding. The mouse and human zonae pellucidae contain three glycoproteins (ZP1, ZP2, ZP3) and, following fertilization, ZP2 is proteolytically cleaved. The replacement of endogenous mouse proteins with human ZP2, ZP3 or both does not alter taxon specificity of sperm binding or prevent fertility. Surprisingly, human ZP2 is not cleaved following fertilization and intact ZP2 correlates with persistent sperm binding to two-cell embryos. Taken together, these data support a model in which the cleavage status of ZP2 modulates the three-dimensional structure of the zona pellucida and determines whether sperm bind (uncleaved) or do not (cleaved).

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