We report heparin-induced decondensation of human, mouse, and bull sperm nuclei. Decondensation did not occur if the spermatozoa were intact but only if the membranes were severely damaged by freezing and thawing or by treatment with a detergent. If a disulphide bond reducing agent (thiol) was absent, decondensation of human sperm nuclei was usually a relatively slow process, with large interindividual variation. Mouse and bull sperm nuclei did not decondense in the absence of a thiol. With a thiol relatively low concentrations of heparin induced a rapid decondensation of the sperm nuclei of all three species. The decondensation activity was not specific for heparin; other polyanions were also active, with heparin being the most effective compound.
It is supposed that heparin and other polyanions induce sperm nuclear decondensation because they deplete protamines from the chromatin. Thus the negatively charged phosphate groups of the DNA are no longer opposed by positively charged protamines. Consequently the mutual repulsion of unopposed phosphate groups causes the DNA molecules to stretch, which results in an increase of the sperm nuclear volume. Since heparin and other polyanions induce decondensation under physiological pH and temperature, polyanions might also be active in the oocyte.