Fertilization is a precisely controlled process involving many gamete molecules in sperm binding to and penetration through the extracellular matrix of the egg. After sperm bind to the extracellular matrix (vitelline coat), they undergo the acrosome reaction which exposes and partially releases a lytic agent called "lysin" to digest the vitelline coat for the sperm penetration. The vitelline coat sperm lysin is generally a protease in deuterostomes. The molecular mechanism of the actual degradation of the vitelline coat, however, remains poorly understood. In order to understand the lysin system, we have been studying the fertilization mechanism in ascidians (Urochordata) because we can obtain large quantities of gametes which are readily fertilized in the laboratory. Whereas ascidians are hermaphrodites, which release sperm and eggs simultaneously, many ascidians, including Halocynthia roretzi, are strictly self-sterile. Therefore, after sperm recognize the vitelline coat as nonself, the sperm lysin system is thought to be activated. We revealed that two sperm trypsin-like proteases, acrosin and spermosin, the latter of which is a novel sperm protease with thrombin-like substrate specificity, are essential for fertilization in H. roretzi. These molecules contain motifs involved in binding to the vitelline coat. We found that the proteasome rather than trypsin-like proteases has a direct lytic activity toward the vitelline coat. The target for the ascidian lysin was found to be a 70-kDa vitelline coat component called HrVC70, which is made up of 12 EGF-like repeats. In addition to the proteasome system, the ubiquitination system toward the HrVC70 was found to be necessary for ascidian fertilization. In this review, I describe recent progress on the structures and roles in fertilization of the two trypsin-like proteases, acrosin and spermosin, and also on the novel extracellular ubiquitin-proteasome system, which plays an essential role in the degradation of the ascidian vitelline coat.
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