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Biol Reprod. 1997 Feb;56(2):320-7.

Why did the sperm cross the cumulus? To get to the oocyte. Functions of the sperm surface proteins PH-20 and fertilin in arriving at, and fusing with, the egg.

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Department of Cell Biology and Human Anatomy, University of California Davis, 95616, USA.


The sperm surface has an active role in the events of fertilization. The definition of the sperm surface in both its composition and domain organization begins during spermatogenesis and continues until the moment of sperm-egg fusion. Alterations of the surface proceed as a result of internal programming and environmental cues from both the male and female reproductive tracts, including interactions with the egg itself. We have investigated the sperm surface to understand its domain organization and the ongoing changes in this organization as well as the role of specific surface proteins in fertilization. Much of our research has concentrated on two surface proteins: PH-20 and fertilin. PH-20 is a single-chain protein, anchored in the membrane via a glycosyl phosphatidylinositol (GPI) anchor. The N-terminal domain of the molecule has a hyaluronidase activity. The hyaluronidase activity of PH-20 on the sperm plasma membrane enables sperm to penetrate the layer of cumulus cells surrounding the oocyte. PH-20 has a second function, unrelated to its hyaluronidase activity, in the binding of acrosome-reacted sperm to the zona pellucida (secondary sperm-zona binding). The fertilin molecule is an alpha,beta heterodimer whose two subunits are closely related transmembrane proteins. Fertilin beta has a disintegrin domain that has high sequence homology with the snake disintegrins, a known class of soluble integrin ligands. The binding site of the beta disintegrin domain functions to bind sperm to the egg plasma membrane via a mechanism that leads to sperm-egg fusion. The precursor of fertilin alpha, made in the testis, has an active metalloprotease site that could function in spermatogenesis. This metalloprotease domain is removed by proteolytic processing in the testis. Mature fertilin alpha on sperm also has a hydrophobic, putative "fusion peptide" that may promote the process of lipid bilayer fusion between sperm and egg plasma membranes. Fertilin alpha and beta are the first identified members of a new gene family of transmembrane proteins, the ADAM family, so called because they contain A Disintegrin And Metalloprotease domain. Many distinct ADAMs have now been found in diverse tissues and species (Drosophila to human) and are proposed to have a variety of functions in development and the adult. In addition to fertilin, other ADAMs are also present on the sperm plasma membrane and may participate with fertilin in sperm-egg fusion.

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