Hyperpolarization of the membrane potential is a crucial step for mammalian sperm maturation. This work demonstrates that this membrane potential change likely activates a sperm-specific sodium/proton exchanger to induce alkalization in mouse sperm flagellum.
The sperm-specific sodium/proton exchanger (sNHE) is an indispensable protein for male fertility in mammals. Nevertheless, it is still unknown how mammalian sNHE is regulated. Evidence obtained from sea urchin sNHE indicates that hyperpolarization of plasma membrane potential (Vm), which is a hallmark of mammalian capacitation, positively regulates the sNHE. Therefore, we explored the activity of sNHE in mouse and human sperm by fluorescence imaging of intracellular pH (pHi) with a ratiometric dye, SNARF-5F. A valinomycin-induced Vm hyperpolarization elevated sperm flagellar pHi of WT mouse but not in sNHE-KO mouse. Moreover, this pHi increase was inhibited in a high K+ (40 mM) medium. These results support the idea that mouse sNHE is activated by Vm hyperpolarization. Interestingly, we observed different types of kinetics derived from valinomycin-induced alkalization, including some (30%) without any pHi changes. Our quantitative pHi determinations revealed that unresponsive cells had a high resting pHi (>7.5), suggesting that the activity of mouse sNHE is regulated by the resting pHi. On the other hand, valinomycin did not increase the pHi of human sperm in the head or the flagellum, regardless of their resting pHi values. Our findings suggest that the regulatory mechanisms of mammalian sNHEs are probably distinct depending on the species.