Mammalian sperm metabolism: oxygen and sugar, friend and foe
Published: 1 July 2008
Bayard T. Storey*
Center for Research on Reproduction and Women's Health, University of Pennsylvania Medical Center, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
Mammalian spermatozoa expend energy, generated as intracellular ATP, largely on motility. If the sperm cell cannot swim by use of its flagellar motion, it cannot fertilize the egg. Studies of the means by which this energy is generated span a period of six decades. This review gives an overview of these studies, which demonstrate that both mitochondrial oxidative phosphorylation, for which oxygen is friend, and glycolysis, for which sugar is friend, can provide the energy, independent of one another. In mouse sperm, glycolysis appears to be the dominant pathway; in bull sperm, oxidative phosphorylation is the predominant pathway. In the case of bull sperm, the high activity of the glycolytic pathway would maintain the intracellular pH too low to allow sperm capacitation; here sugar is enemy. The cow's oviduct has very low glucose concentration, thus allowing capacitation to go forward. The choice of the pathway of energy generation in vivo is set by the conditions in the oviduct of the conspecific female. The phospholipids of the sperm plasma membrane have a high content of polyunsaturated fatty acids represented in their acyl moieties, rendering them highly susceptible to lipid peroxidation; in this case oxygen is enemy. But the susceptibility of the sperm membrane to lethal damage by lipid peroxidation allows the female oviduct to dispose of sperm that have overstayed their welcome, and so keep in balance sperm access to the egg and sperm removal once this has occurred.