Although the molecular basis of sperm-oocyte interaction is unclear, recent studies have implicated two chaperone proteins, heat shock protein 1 (HSPD1; previously known as heat shock protein 60) and tumor rejection antigen gp96 (TRA1; previously known as endoplasmin), in the formation of a functional zona-receptor complex on the surface of mammalian spermatozoa. The current study was undertaken to investigate the expression of these chaperones during the ontogeny of male germ cells through spermatogenesis, epididymal sperm maturation, capacitation, and acrosomal exocytosis. In testicular sections, both HSPD1 and TRA1 were closely associated with the mitochondria of spermatogonia and primary spermatocytes. However, this labeling pattern disappeared from the male germ line during spermiogenesis to become undetectable in testicular spermatozoa. Subsequently, these chaperones could be detected in epididymal spermatozoa and in previously unreported “dense bodies” in the epididymal lumen. The latter appeared in the precise region of the epididymis (proximal corpus), where spermatozoa acquire the capacity to recognize and bind to the zona pellucida, implicating these structures in the functional remodeling of the sperm surface during epididymal maturation. Both HSPD1 and TRA1 were subsequently found to become coexpressed on the surface of live mouse spermatozoa following capacitation in vitro and were lost once these cells had undergone the acrosome reaction, as would be expected of cell surface molecules involved in sperm-egg interaction. These data reinforce the notion that these chaperones are intimately involved in the mechanisms by which mammalian spermatozoa both acquire and express their ability to recognize the zona pellucida.
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