Exogenous pyruvate accelerates glycolysis and promotes capacitation in human spermatozoa

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There has been an ongoing debate in the reproductive field about whether mammalian spermatozoa rely on glycolysis, oxidative phosphorylation or both for their energy production. Recent studies have proposed that human spermatozoa depend mainly on glucose for motility and fertilization but the mechanism behind an efficient glycolysis in human spermatozoa is not well understood. Here, we demonstrate how human spermatozoa utilize exogenous pyruvate to enhance glycolytic ATP production, motility, hyperactivation and capacitation, events that are crucial for male fertility.


Purified human spermatozoa from healthy donors were incubated under capacitating conditions (including albumin, bicarbonate and glucose) and tested for changes in ATP levels, motility, hyperactivation and tyrosine phosphorylation after treatment with pyruvate. The experiments were repeated in the presence of sodium cyanide in order to assess the contribution from mitochondrial respiration. The metabolism of 13C labeled glucose and pyruvate was traced by a combination of liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry.


The treatment of human spermatozoa with exogenous pyruvate increased intracellular ATP levels, progressive motility and hyperactivation by 56, 21 and 130%, respectively. In addition, added pyruvate induced a significant increase in tyrosine phosphorylation levels. Blocking of the electron transport chain did not markedly affect the results, indicating that the mechanism is independent of oxidative phosphorylation. However, the observed effects could be counteracted by oxamate, an inhibitor of lactate dehydrogenase (LDH). Metabolic tracing experiments revealed that the observed rise in ATP concentration resulted from an enhanced glycolytic flux, which was increased by more than 50% in the presence of exogenous pyruvate. Moreover, all consumed 13C labeled pyruvate added was converted to lactate rather than oxidized in the tricarboxylic acid cycle.


Human spermatozoa seem to rely mainly, if not entirely, on glycolysis as the source of ATP fueling the energy-demanding processes of motility and capacitation. The efficient glycolysis is dependent on exogenous pyruvate, which indirectly feeds the accelerated glycolysis with NAD+ through the LDH-mediated conversion of pyruvate to lactate. Pyruvate is present in the human female reproductive tract at concentrations in accordance with our results. As seen in other mammals, the motility and fertility of human spermatozoa seem to be dictated by the available energy substrates present in the conspecific female.

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