The molecular basis of mammalian sperm capacitation, defined functionally as those processes that confer on the sperm the acquisition of fertilization-competence either in vivo in the female reproductive tract or in vitro, is poorly understood. We demonstrate here that capacitation of caudal epididymal mouse sperm in vitro is accompanied by a time-dependent increase in the protein tyrosine phosphorylation of a subset of proteins of M(r) 40,000-120,000. Incubation of sperm in media devoid of bovine serum albumin, CaCl2 or NaHCO3, components which individually are required for capacitation, prevent the sperm from undergoing capacitation as assessed by the ability of the cells to acquire the pattern B chlortetracycline fluorescence, to undergo the zona pellucida-induced acrosome reaction and, in some cases, to fertilize metaphase II-arrested eggs in vitro. In each of these cases the protein tyrosine phosphorylation of the subset of capacitation-associated proteins does not occur. Protein tyrosine phosphorylation of these particular proteins, as well as sperm capacitation, can be recovered in media devoid of each of these three constituents (bovine serum albumin, CaCl2 or NaHCO3) by adding back the appropriate component in a concentration-dependent manner. The requirement of NaHCO3 for these phosphorylations is not due to an alkalinization of intracellular sperm pH or to an increase in media pH. Caput epididymal sperm, which lack the ability to undergo capacitation in vitro, do not display this capacitation-dependent subset of tyrosine phosphorylated proteins in complete media even after extended incubation periods, and do not fertilize metaphase II-arrested eggs in vitro.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 250 WORDS)

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