The normal structure and function of sperm are prerequisites for successful fertilization and embryonic development, but little is known about how defective sperm are eliminated during mammalian spermatogenesis. Here, we describe a ubiquitin-dependent, sperm quality control mechanism that resides in the mammalian epididymis, the site of sperm maturation and storage. We used immunofluorescence, electron microscopy, western blotting and pulse-chase experiments to show that ubiquitin is secreted by the epididymal epithelium and binds to the surface of defective sperm. Most of the ubiquitinated sperm are subsequently phagocytosed by the epididymal epithelial cells. A portion of defective sperm escapes phagocytosis and can be found in the ejaculate. Cultured epididymal cells maintain their ability to produce ubiquitin and phagocytose the defective sperm, as well as the ubiquitin-coated microspheres, in vitro. The surprising phenomenon of cell-surface ubiquitination in defective sperm provides a possible mechanism for sperm quality control in mammals and a new marker of semen abnormalities in men and animals.

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