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Bart Leemans, Bart M Gadella, Tom A E Stout, Catharina De Schauwer, Hilde Nelis, Maarten Hoogewijs and Ann Van Soom

In contrast to man and many other mammalian species, conventional in vitro fertilization (IVF) with horse gametes is not reliably successful. The apparent inability of stallion spermatozoa to penetrate the zona pellucida in vitro is most likely due to incomplete activation of spermatozoa (capacitation) because of inadequate capacitating or fertilizing media. In vivo, the oviduct and its secretions provide a microenvironment that does reliably support and regulate interaction between the gametes. This review focuses on equine sperm–oviduct interaction. Equine sperm–oviduct binding appears to be more complex than the presumed species-specific calcium-dependent lectin binding phenomenon; unfortunately, the nature of the interaction is not understood. Various capacitation-related events are induced to regulate sperm release from the oviduct epithelium and most data suggest that exposure to oviduct secretions triggers sperm capacitation in vivo. However, only limited information is available about equine oviduct secreted factors, and few have been identified. Another aspect of equine oviduct physiology relevant to capacitation is acid–base balance. In vitro, it has been demonstrated that stallion spermatozoa show tail-associated protein tyrosine phosphorylation after binding to oviduct epithelial cells containing alkaline secretory granules. In response to alkaline follicular fluid preparations (pH 7.9), stallion spermatozoa also show tail-associated protein tyrosine phosphorylation, hyperactivated motility and (limited) release from oviduct epithelial binding. However, these ‘capacitating conditions’ are not able to induce the acrosome reaction and fertilization. In conclusion, developing a defined capacitating medium to support successful equine IVF will depend on identifying as yet uncharacterized capacitation triggers present in the oviduct.

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Bart Leemans, Tom A E Stout, Catharina De Schauwer, Sonia Heras, Hilde Nelis, Maarten Hoogewijs, Ann Van Soom and Bart M Gadella

In contrast to various other mammalian species, conventional in vitro fertilization (IVF) with horse gametes is not reliably successful. In particular, stallion spermatozoa fails to penetrate the zona pellucida, most likely due to incomplete activation of stallion spermatozoa (capacitation) under in vitro conditions. In other mammalian species, specific capacitation triggers have been described; unfortunately, none of these is able to induce full capacitation in stallion spermatozoa. Nevertheless, knowledge of capacitation pathways and their molecular triggers might improve our understanding of capacitation-related events observed in stallion sperm. When sperm cells are exposed to appropriate capacitation triggers, several molecular and biochemical changes should be induced in the sperm plasma membrane and cytoplasm. At the level of the sperm plasma membrane, (1) an increase in membrane fluidity, (2) cholesterol depletion and (3) lipid raft aggregation should occur consecutively; the cytoplasmic changes consist of protein tyrosine phosphorylation and elevated pH, cAMP and Ca2+ concentrations. These capacitation-related events enable the switch from progressive to hyperactivated motility of the sperm cells, and the induction of the acrosome reaction. These final capacitation triggers are indispensable for sperm cells to migrate through the viscous oviductal environment, penetrate the cumulus cells and zona pellucida and, finally, fuse with the oolemma. This review will focus on molecular aspects of sperm capacitation and known triggers in various mammalian species. Similarities and differences with the horse will be highlighted to improve our understanding of equine sperm capacitation/fertilizing events.

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Bart Leemans, Bart M Gadella, Tom A E Stout, Edita Sostaric, Catharina De Schauwer, Hilde Nelis, Maarten Hoogewijs and Ann Van Soom

In many species, sperm binding to oviduct epithelium is believed to be an essential step in generating a highly fertile capacitated sperm population primed for fertilization. In several mammalian species, this interaction is based on carbohydrate-lectin recognition. d-galactose has previously been characterized as a key molecule that facilitates sperm–oviduct binding in the horse. We used oviduct explant and oviduct apical plasma membrane (APM) assays to investigate the effects of various carbohydrates; glycosaminoglycans; lectins; S-S reductants; and the capacitating factors albumin, Ca2+ and HCO3 on sperm–oviduct binding in the horse. Carbohydrate-specific lectin staining indicated that N-acetylgalactosamine, N-acetylneuraminic acid (sialic acid) and d-mannose or d-glucose were the most abundant carbohydrates on equine oviduct epithelia, whereas d-galactose moieties were not detected. However, in a competitive binding assay, sperm–oviduct binding density was not influenced by any tested carbohydrates, glycosaminoglycans, lectins or d-penicillamine, nor did the glycosaminoglycans induce sperm tail-associated protein tyrosine phosphorylation. Furthermore, N-glycosidase F (PNGase) pretreatment of oviduct explants and APM did not alter sperm–oviduct binding density. By contrast, a combination of the sperm-capacitating factors albumin and HCO3 severely reduced (>10-fold) equine sperm–oviduct binding density by inducing rapid head-to-head agglutination, both of which events were independent of Ca2+ and an elevated pH (7.9). Conversely, neither albumin and HCO3 nor any other capacitating factor could induce release of oviduct-bound sperm. In conclusion, a combination of albumin and HCO3 markedly induced sperm head-to-head agglutination which physically prevented stallion sperm to bind to oviduct epithelium.