Sperm activation is a fascinating example of cell differentiation, in which immotile spermatids undergo a rapid and dramatic transition to become mature, motile sperm. Because the sperm nucleus is transcriptionally silent, this transition does not involve transcriptional changes. Although Caenorhabditis elegans is a leading model for studies of sperm activation, the mechanisms by which signaling pathways induce this transformation remain poorly characterized. Here we show that a conserved transmembrane zinc transporter, ZIPT-7.1, regulates the induction of sperm activation in Caenorhabditis nematodes. The zipt-7.1 mutant hermaphrodites cannot self-fertilize, and males reproduce poorly, because mutant spermatids are defective in responding to activating signals. The zipt-7.1 gene is expressed in the germ line and functions in germ cells to promote sperm activation. When expressed in mammalian cells, ZIPT-7.1 mediates zinc transport with high specificity and is predominantly located on internal membranes. Finally, genetic epistasis places zipt-7.1 at the end of the spe-8 sperm activation pathway, and ZIPT-7.1 binds SPE-4, a presenilin that regulates sperm activation. Based on these results, we propose a new model for sperm activation. In spermatids, inactive ZIPT-7.1 is localized to the membranous organelles, which contain higher levels of zinc than the cytoplasm. When sperm activation is triggered, ZIPT-7.1 activity increases, releasing zinc from internal stores. The resulting increase in cytoplasmic zinc promotes the phenotypic changes characteristic of activation. Thus, zinc signaling is a key step in the signal transduction process that mediates sperm activation, and we have identified a zinc transporter that is central to this activation process.
Zhao Y, Tan CH, Krauchunas A, Scharf A, Dietrich N, Warnhoff K, Yuan Z, Druzhinina M, Gu SG, Miao L, Singson A, Ellis RE, Kornfeld K. The zinc transporter ZIPT-7.1 regulates sperm activation in nematodes. PloS Biology. 2018 Jun 7;16(6):e2005069. eCollection 2018 Jun. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.2005069. PMID: 29879108. PMCID: PMC5991658.
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