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Capacitation is the penultimate[1] step in the maturation of mammalian spermatozoa and is required to render them competent to fertilize an oocyte.[2] This step is a biochemical event; the sperm move normally and look mature prior to capacitation. In vivo, capacitation occurs after ejaculation, when the spermatozoa leave the vagina and enter the superior female reproductive tract. The uterus aids in the steps of capacitation by secreting sterol-binding albumin, lipoproteins, and proteolytic and glycosidasic enzymes such as heparin.

For purposes of in vitro fertilization, capacitation occurs by incubating spermatozoa that have either undergone ejaculation or have been extracted from the epididymis and incubated in a defined medium for several hours. There are different techniques to perform the capacitation step: simple washing, migration (swim-up), density gradients, and filter. The objective is to isolate as many motile spermatozoa as possible and to eliminate non-motile or dead spermatozoa. After either in vivo or in vitro capacitation the sperm must undergo the final maturation step, activation, involving the acrosome reaction.

Non-mammalian spermatozoa do not require this capacitation step and are ready to fertilize an oocyte immediately after release from the male.

Function and mechanism[edit]

Capacitation has two effects: destabilisation of the acrosomal sperm head membrane which allows it to penetrate the outer layer of the egg, and chemical changes in the tail that allow a greater mobility in the sperm.[3] The changes are facilitated by the removal of sterols (e.g. cholesterol) and non-covalently bound epididymal/seminal glycoproteins. The result is a more fluid membrane with an increased permeability to Ca2+.

An influx of Ca2+ produces increased intracellular cAMP levels and thus, an increase in motility. Hyperactivation coincides with the onset of capacitation and is the result of the increased Ca2+ levels. It has a synergistic stimulatory effect with adenosine that increases adenylyl cyclase activity in the sperm.[citation needed]

The tripeptide fertilization promoting peptide (FPP) is essential for controlling capacitation. FPP is produced in the prostate gland as a component of the seminal fluid. FPP comes into contact with the spermatozoa during ejaculation, as the sperm and seminal fluid mix. High levels of active FPP prevent capacitation. After ejaculation, the concentration of FPP drops in the female reproductive tract. Vaginal secretions dilute it and also make it less active due to acidic pH.[citation needed]


Because assisted reproductive technologies, or ARTs, such as in vitro fertilization (IVF) or intrauterine insemination (IUI) require the induction of sperm cell capacitation outside of normal biological parameters, numerous methods have been developed to induce this process in mammalian sperm cells. Sperm cells are harvested through ejaculation or harvested from the caudal epididymus and allowed to liquefy at room temperature. Capacitation can then be induced by adding media designed to mimic the electrolytic composition of the fallopian tubes, where fertilization occurs. These media vary between species, but are saline-based and contain energy substrates such as lactate, pyruvate, and possibly glucose. A cholesterol acceptor is required to facilitate the removal of cholesterol from the sperm cell membrane, which is always albumin. Bovine serum albumin is typically used for in vitro animal studies, and human serum albumin (HSA) is used in human sperm capacitation induction.

Bicarbonate is a vital component of capacitation-inducing media, as it is co-transported into the cytosol where it activates soluble adenylyl cyclase (sAC) as well as acts as a pH buffer necessary to prevent decreasing the pH in the culture, a necessary addition when incubating cells at 5% CO2 as is generally used although not required. Calcium chloride is added to facilitated the influx via of calcium cations.[4][5] In animal models, Tyrode's albumin lactate pyruvate (TALP) medium is typically used as a base, which contains each of these components. In humans, human tubal fluid (HTF) is used.

These media can be supplemented with other chemicals to induce hyperactivated sperm motility and/or the acrosome reaction. For animal in vitro fertilization, caffeine at 5 mM concentration is a strong inducer of sperm capacitation in vitro.[6][7] Calcium ionophores are also ideal to induce capacitation.[7] Adding heparin to capacitation inducing medium mimics the secretion of heparin-like gycosaminoglycans (GAGs) near the oocyte and initiates the acrosome reaction. This effect is magnified when adding lysophosphatidylcholine (LC) in conjunction with heparin.[8] Catecholamines such as norepinephrine at low concentrations have been shown to assist in acrosome reaction induction.[9]


Numerous methods have been developed to assess the degree to which sperm cells are undergoing capacitation in vitro. Computer-aided sperm analysis (CASA) was developed in the 1980s for measuring sperm kinematics.[10] CASA uses phase-contrast microscopy combined with sperm tracking software to analyze sperm motility parameters.[10] Certain parameters such as curvilinear velocity (VCL), straightline velocity (VSL), average path velocity (VAP), and the amplitude of lateral head displacement (ALH) have been shown to be positively correlated with the acquisition of fertilization competency and are thus used to identify hyperactive sperm cell motility.[11]

While motility measurements are critical for identifying the presence of hyperactive motility, additional methods have been developed to identify the occurrence of the acrosome reaction. A simple method uses Coomassie brilliant blue G250 to stain cells, providing visual evidence of intact or reacted acrosomes.[12] More advanced techniques employ fluorescent or electron microscopy methods. Fluorescein-conjugated Peanut agglutinin (FITC-PNA) or Pisum sativum agglutinin (FITC-PSA) can be used to fluorescently tag the acrosome of sperm cells, which can be then used to assess the status of the acrosome using a fluorescent microscope.[13][14][15]


The discovery of this process was independently reported in 1951 by both Min Chueh Chang[16] and Colin Russell Austin.[17][18]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Johnson MH (2007). Essential reproduction (6th ed.). Malden Massachusetts: Blackwell Scientific Publications. pp. 177–178. ISBN 978-1-4051-1866-8.
  2. ^ Lozano GM, Bejarano I, Espino J, González D, Ortiz A, García JF, Rodríguez AB, Pariente JA (2009). "Density gradient capacitation is the most suitable method to improve fertilization and to reduce DNA fragmentation positive spermatozoa of infertile men". Anatolian Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology. 3 (1): 1–7.
  3. ^ Okabe M (2013). "The cell biology of mammalian fertilization" (PDF). Development. 140 (22): 4471–4479. doi:10.1242/dev.090613. PMID 24194470.
  4. ^ Visconti PE, Galantino-Homer H, Moore GD, Bailey JL, Ning X, Fornes M, Kopf GS (1998). "The molecular basis of sperm capacitation". Journal of Andrology. 19 (2): 242–248. doi:10.1002/j.1939-4640.1998.tb01994.x (inactive 2019-08-20). PMID 9570749.
  5. ^ Puga Molina LC, Luque GM, Balestrini PA, Marín-Briggiler CI, Romarowski A, Buffone MG (2018). "Molecular Basis of Human Sperm Capacitation". Frontiers in Cell and Developmental Biology. 6: 72. doi:10.3389/fcell.2018.00072. PMC 6078053. PMID 30105226.
  6. ^ Nabavi N, Todehdehghan F, Shiravi A (September 2013). "Effect of caffeine on motility and vitality of sperm and in vitro fertilization of outbreed mouse in T6 and M16 media". Iranian Journal of Reproductive Medicine. 11 (9): 741–746. PMC 3941327. PMID 24639814.
  7. ^ a b Barakat IA, Danfour MA, Galewan FA, Dkhil MA (2015). "Effect of various concentrations of caffeine, pentoxifylline, and kallikrein on hyperactivation of frozen bovine semen". BioMed Research International. 2015: 948575. doi:10.1155/2015/948575. PMC 4407405. PMID 25950005.
  8. ^ Parrish JJ, Susko-Parrish J, Winer MA, First NL (1988). "Capacitation of bovine sperm by heparin". Biology of Reproduction. 38 (5): 1171–1180. doi:10.1095/biolreprod38.5.1171. PMID 3408784.
  9. ^ Way AL, Killian GJ (2002). "Capacitation and induction of the acrosome reaction in bull spermatozoa with norepinephrine". Journal of Andrology. 23 (3): 352–357. PMID 12002437.
  10. ^ a b Mortimer D, Mortimer ST (2013). "Computer-Aided Sperm Analysis (CASA) of sperm motility and hyperactivation". Methods in Molecular Biology. 927: 77–87. doi:10.1007/978-1-62703-038-0_8. ISBN 978-1-62703-037-3. PMID 22992905.
  11. ^ Verstegen J, Iguer-Ouada M, Onclin K (2002). "Computer assisted semen analyzers in andrology research and veterinary practice". Theriogenology. 57 (1): 149–179. doi:10.1016/S0093-691X(01)00664-1. PMID 11775967.
  12. ^ Lu HY, Lu JC, Hu YA, Wang YM, Huang YF (2002). "[Detection of human sperm morphology and acrosome reaction with Coomassie brilliant blue staining]". Zhonghua Nan Ke Xue = National Journal of Andrology. 8 (3): 204–206. PMID 12478845.
  13. ^ Cheng FP, Fazeli A, Voorhout WF, Marks A, Bevers MM, Colenbrander B (1996). "Use of peanut agglutinin to assess the acrosomal status and the zona pellucida-induced acrosome reaction in stallion spermatozoa". Journal of Andrology. 17 (6): 674–682. PMID 9016398.
  14. ^ Lybaert P, Danguy A, Leleux F, Meuris S, Lebrun P (2009). "Improved methodology for the detection and quantification of the acrosome reaction in mouse spermatozoa". Histology and Histopathology. 24 (8): 999–1007. doi:10.14670/HH-24.999. PMID 19554507.
  15. ^ Ozaki T, Takahashi K, Kanasaki H, Miyazaki K (2002). "Evaluation of acrosome reaction and viability of human sperm with two fluorescent dyes". Archives of Gynecology and Obstetrics. 266 (2): 114–117. doi:10.1007/s004040000112. PMID 12049293.
  16. ^ Chang MC (1951). "Fertilizing capacity of spermatozoa deposited into the fallopian tubes". Nature. 168 (4277): 697–698. Bibcode:1951Natur.168..697C. doi:10.1038/168697b0. PMID 14882325.
  17. ^ Austin CR (1951). "Observations on the penetration of the sperm in the mammalian egg". Australian Journal of Scientific Research. Ser. B: Biological Sciences. 4 (4): 581–596. doi:10.1071/BI9510581. PMID 14895481.
  18. ^ "Obituary: Colin Austin" (PDF). Australian Academy of Science Newsletter. 60: 11. 2004. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2008-07-19. Retrieved 2008-07-16.

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