Cytochemical techniques were used to study chromatin during spermiogenesis and sperm maturation in the mouse, starting from the stages at which the substitution of somatic histones by testis-specific proteins occurs. It was possible to distinguish and analyze the different temporal incidence of two processes involved in sperm maturation, i.e. chromatin condensation (a tridimensional highly compacted arrangement) and chromatin stabilization (a tough structure, which protects the genome DNA). The first process, involving a reduction in the nuclear size and a decrease in the amount of sperm DNA accessible to specific cytochemical reactions and stainings, was found to reach its maximum in caput-epididymidis spermatozoa, in which electron microscopy revealed that the sheared chromatin was mainly organized into 120-Å-thick knobby fibers. No further changes were found in sperm up to their appearance in the fallopian tubes. On the contrary, chromatin stabilization, the onset of which occurs in the testis (at the late spermatid stage) via the formation of -S-S- cross-links, is completed in the vas deferens, where chromatin has a superstructure consisting of thicker fibers, with diameters of 210 and 350 Å. The reductive cleavage of disulfides in vas-deferens spermatozoa does not completely destroy the superstructure of sperm chromatin, which could indicate 'coiling' of the basic knobby fiber. In fact, when the ion concentration was increased, the chromatin of vas-deferens spermatozoa appeared to be organized into fibers with diameters similar to those of the caput epididymidis. This unique organization of mature sperm chromatin should have an essential role in the fast swelling of spermatozoa during fertilization.
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