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.


Biological Sciences

Publication Status

Open Access


National Science Foundation, Grant 1021128

International Standard Serial Number (ISSN)

1545-7885; 1544-9173

Document Type

Article - Journal

Document Version

Final Version

File Type





© 2023 The Authors, All rights reserved.

Creative Commons Licensing

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Publication Date

01 Jun 2018

PubMed ID


Included in

Biology Commons