At fertilization, the spermatozoon is generally held to generate two important second messengers, inositol trisphosphate and diacylglycerol. A similar situation arises when these signalling molecules are generated after a hormone binds to its plasma membrane receptor. This signalling mechanism releases intracellular Ca2+ which causes cortical granule release and initiates meiotic resumption. This review will examine the role played at fertilization by protein kinase C which is a primary target of diacylglycerol. The pharmacological agents phorbol esters, which mimic the action of diacylglycerol, when added to mammalian oocytes induce cortical granule release and may cause meiotic resumption. However, the originally accepted mechanism of fertilization is now questioned with the recent finding of a soluble sperm Ca2+-releasing factor expelled directly into the oocyte cytoplasm, bypassing any membrane receptor. Therefore, it is timely to re-evaluate the role played by protein kinase C at fertilization in light of a mechanism that may produce Ca2+ without producing diacylglycerol concomitantly. This article will examine the evidence implicating activation of protein kinase C in Ca2+ oscillations, cortical granule release and meiotic resumption. It will contend that pharmacological studies relying on the specificity of phorbol esters and other agonists, as well as inhibitors of protein kinase C, have produced conflicting interpretations of the role of this kinase at fertilization.
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