To fuse with oocytes, spermatozoa of eutherian mammals must pass through extracellular coats, the cumulus cell layer, and the zona pellucida (ZP). It is generally believed that the acrosome reaction (AR) of spermatozoa, essential for zona penetration and fusion with oocytes, is triggered by sperm contact with the zona pellucida. Therefore, in most previous studies of sperm–oocyte interactions in the mouse, the cumulus has been removed before insemination to facilitate the examination of sperm–zona interactions. We used transgenic mouse spermatozoa, which enabled us to detect the onset of the acrosome reaction using fluorescence microscopy. We found that the spermatozoa that began the acrosome reaction before reaching the zona were able to penetrate the zona and fused with the oocyte's plasma membrane. In fact, most fertilizing spermatozoa underwent the acrosome reaction before reaching the zona pellucida of cumulus-enclosed oocytes, at least under the experimental conditions we used. The incidence of in vitro fertilization of cumulus-free oocytes was increased by coincubating oocytes with cumulus cells, suggesting an important role for cumulus cells and their matrix in natural fertilization
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