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Elizabeth G Bromfield and Brett Nixon

The remarkable complexity of the molecular events governing adhesion and fusion of the male and female gametes is becoming apparent. Novel research suggests that these highly specific cellular interactions are facilitated by multiprotein complexes that are delivered to and/or assembled on the surface of the gametes by molecular chaperones in preparation for sperm–egg interaction. While the activation of these molecular chaperones and the mechanisms by which they shuttle proteins to the surface of the cell remain the subject of ongoing investigation, a compelling suggestion is that these processes are augmented by dynamic membrane microdomains or lipid rafts that migrate to the apical region of the sperm head after capacitation. Preliminary studies of the oocyte plasma membrane have also revealed the presence of lipid rafts comprising several molecular chaperones, raising the possibility that similar mechanisms may be involved in the activation of maternal fusion machinery and the regulation of oocyte plasma membrane integrity. Despite these findings, the analysis of oocyte surface multiprotein complexes is currently lacking. Further analyses of the intermediary proteins that facilitate the expression of key players in sperm–egg fusion are likely to deliver important insights into this unique event, which culminates in the cytoplasmic continuity of the male and female gametes.

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Natalie A Trigg, Andrew L Eamens, and Brett Nixon

It is now well established that mature spermatozoa harbour a rich and diverse profile of small non-protein-coding regulatory RNAs (sRNAs). There is also growing appreciation that this sRNA profile displays considerable plasticity, being altered in response to paternal exposure to a variety of environmental stressors. Coupled with evidence that upon delivery to the oocyte at the moment of fertilisation, sperm-borne sRNAs are able to influence both early embryonic development and the subsequent health of the offspring, there is now interest in both the timing and degree of change in the composition of the sRNA cargo of sperm. Models in which such epigenetic changes are linked to the spermatogenic cycle are seemingly incompatible with the lack of overt phenotypic changes in the spermatozoa of affected males. Rather, there is mounting consensus that such changes are imposed on sperm during their transit and storage within the epididymis, a protracted developmental window that takes place over several weeks. Notably, since spermatozoa are rendered transcriptionally and translationally silent during their development in the testes, it is most likely that the epididymis-documented alterations to the sperm sRNA profile are driven extrinsically, with a leading candidate being epididymosomes: small membrane enclosed extracellular vesicles that encapsulate a complex macromolecular cargo of proteins and RNAs, including the sRNAs. Here, we review the role of epididymosome–sperm communication in contributing to the establishment of the sperm sRNA profile during their epididymal transit.

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Elizabeth G Bromfield, R John Aitken, Zamira Gibb, Sarah R Lambourne, and Brett Nixon

While IVF has been widely successful in many domesticated species, the development of a robust IVF system for the horse remains an elusive and highly valued goal. A major impediment to the development of equine IVF is the fact that optimised conditions for the capacitation of equine spermatozoa are yet to be developed. Conversely, it is known that stallion spermatozoa are particularly susceptible to damage arising as a consequence of capacitation-like changes induced prematurely in response to semen handling and transport conditions. To address these limitations, this study sought to develop an effective system to both suppress and promote the in vitro capacitation of stallion spermatozoa. Our data indicated that the latter could be achieved in a bicarbonate-rich medium supplemented with a phosphodiesterase inhibitor, a cyclic AMP analogue, and methyl-β-cyclodextrin, an efficient cholesterol-withdrawing agent. The populations of spermatozoa generated under these conditions displayed a number of hallmarks of capacitation, including elevated levels of tyrosine phosphorylation, a reorganisation of the plasma membrane leading to lipid raft coalescence in the peri-acrosomal region of the sperm head, and a dramatic increase in their ability to interact with heterologous bovine zona pellucida (ZP) and undergo agonist-induced acrosomal exocytosis. Furthermore, this functional transformation was effectively suppressed in media devoid of bicarbonate. Collectively, these results highlight the importance of efficient cholesterol removal in priming stallion spermatozoa for ZP binding in vitro.

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Brett Nixon, Katherine A Ewen, Klara M Krivanek, John Clulow, Grahame Kidd, Heath Ecroyd, and Russell C Jones

The role of the avian epididymis in post-testicular development and capacitation was examined to assess whether avian spermatozoa undergo any processes similar to those characteristic of mammalian sperm development. We found no evidence of a need for quail sperm to undergo capacitation and 90% of testicular sperm could bind to a perivitelline membrane and acrosome react. However, computer-assisted sperm analysis showed that 20% of testicular sperm from the quail were capable of movement and only about 12% of the motile sperm would have a curvilinear velocity greater than the mean for sperm from the distal epididymis. Nevertheless, epididymal transit was associated with increases in mean sperm velocity and the proportion of motile sperm. Together, these findings explain why earlier workers have achieved some fertilizations following inseminations of testicular spermatozoa and also demonstrate the need for some epididymal maturation of avian spermatozoa. Analysis of the electrophoretic profile of quail epididymal luminal proteins revealed that only one major protein (∼16 kDa) is secreted by the epididymis and it was virtually the only protein secreted by the ipsilateral epididymis following unilateral orchidectomy. Mass spectrometry showed that this protein is hemoglobin; this finding was confirmed using anti-hemoglobin antibodies. It is suggested that hemoglobin may support sperm metabolism in the quail epididymis, aid in motility, and/or serve as an antioxidant.

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Jacinta H Martin, Brett Nixon, Shenae L Cafe, R John Aitken, Elizabeth G Bromfield, and Tessa Lord

In brief

Post-ovulatory ageing of oocytes leads to poor oocyte and embryo quality as well as abnormalities in offspring. This review provides an update on the contributions of oxidative stress to this process and discusses the current literature surrounding the use of antioxidant media to delay post-ovulatory oocyte ageing.


Following ovulation, the metaphase II stage oocyte has a limited functional lifespan before succumbing to a process known as post-ovulatory oocyte ageing. This progressive demise occurs both in vivo and in vitro and is accompanied by a deterioration in oocyte quality, leading to a well-defined sequelae of reduced fertilisation rates, poor embryo quality, post-implantation errors, and abnormalities in the offspring. Although the physiological consequences of post-ovulatory oocyte ageing have largely been characterised, less is known regarding the molecular mechanisms that drive this process. This review presents an update on the established relationships between the biochemical changes exhibited by the ageing oocyte and the myriad of symptoms associated with the ageing phenotype. In doing so, we consider the molecular events that are potentially involved in orchestrating post-ovulatory ageing with a particular focus on the role of oxidative stress. We highlight the mounting evidence that oxidative stress acts as an initiator for a cascade of events that create the aged oocyte phenotype. Specifically, oxidative stress has the capacity to disrupt mitochondrial function and directly damage multiple intracellular components of the oocyte such as lipids, proteins, and DNA. Finally, this review addresses emerging strategies for delaying post-ovulatory oocyte ageing with emphasis placed on the promise afforded by the use of selected antioxidants to guide the development of media tailored for the preservation of oocyte integrity during in vitro fertilisation procedures.

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Róisín A Griffin, Aleona Swegen, Mark Baker, Robert John Aitken, David A Skerrett-Byrne, Antonio Silva Rodriguez, Francisco E Martín-Cano, Brett Nixon, Fernando J Peña, Maryse Delehedde, Nicolas Sergeant, and Zamira Gibb

The horse breeding industry relies upon optimal stallion fertility. Conventional sperm assessments provide limited information regarding ejaculate quality and are not individually predictive of fertilizing potential. The aim of this study was to harness mass spectrometry to compare the proteomic profiles of high- and low-quality stallion spermatozoa, with the ultimate goal of identifying fertility biomarker candidates. Extended stallion semen (n = 12) was fractionated using Percoll density gradients to isolate low-quality and high-quality sperm populations. Motility and morphological assessments were carried out, and proteomic analyses was conducted using UHPLC-MS/MS. High-quality spermatozoa recorded higher total (95.2 ± 0.52% vs 70.6 ± 4.20%; P ≤ 0.001) and progressive motilities (43.4 ± 3.42% vs 27.3 ± 4.32%; P ≤ 0.05), and a higher proportion of morphologically normal cells (50.2 ± 4.34% vs 38.8 ± 2.72%; P ≤ 0.05). In total, 1069 proteins were quantified by UHPLC-MS/MS, of which 22 proteins were significantly more abundant in the high-quality sperm population (P ≤ 0.05). A-kinase anchor protein 4 (AKAP4) and Hexokinase 1 (HK1) were considered possible biomarker candidates and their differential expression was confirmed by immunoblot. Protein expression was significantly correlated with total (AKAP4 R 2 = 0.38, P ≤ 0.01; HK1 R 2 = 0.46, P ≤ 0.001) and progressive motilities (AKAP4 R 2 = 0.51, P ≤ 0.001; HK1 R 2 = 0.55, P ≤ 0.01), percentage rapid (AKAP4 R 2 = 0.29, P ≤ 0.05; HK1 R 2 = 0.58, P ≤ 0.001), straight-line velocity (HK1 R 2 = 0.50, P ≤ 0.01) and straightness (HK1 R 2 = 0.40, P ≤ 0.01). Furthermore, AKAP4 was highly susceptible to adduction by 4-hydroxynonenal (4HNE), which resulted in a global reduction in the phosphorylation profiles following capacitation. In conclusion, the proteomic profiles of high- and low-quality stallion spermatozoa differ substantially, and proteins such as AKAP4 and HK1 could serve as biomarkers of ejaculate quality.