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For freshwater fish the motile period of sperm is extremely brief, even after a dilution in isotonic media. This result is in contrast to most other animals (ranging from invertebrates to mammals), in which sperm are generally motile for at least several hours.

We have analyzed the reasons for the brevity of this movement by studying the relationships between the metabolism of trout sperm and the activation of their motility upon dilution. Sperm motility was not initiated when the dilution medium contained an elevated concentration of potassium (20–40 mM), but dilution in an isotonic solution of sodium chloride triggered an immediate activation of motility, and sperm swam vigorously. Motility of sperm decreased rapidly and 15 s after dilution sperm were moving slowly in small circles. Sperm became abruptly immotile at 20–30 s and flagella straightened. When millimolar concentrations of Ca2+ were also present in the dilution medium, movement did not not stop abruptly, flagella kept beating and stopped only after 1–2 min.

When sperm remained immotile they retained a high concentration of ATP. The activation of motility induced a rapid decrease of ATP. In the absence of calcium, and after the cessation of motility, ATP increased slowly back to its original concentration. In the presence of millimolar concentrations of calcium the concentration of ATP decreased to a very low level and remained low thereafter.

The progressive decrease of the flagellar beat frequency, that had been observed during the period of trout sperm movement, might be related to the rapid exhaustion of intraflagellar ATP. Motility could be reinduced in sperm that had recovered high concentrations of ATP, demonstrating the functional integrity of the motile apparatus even after flagellar arrest.

In conclusion we suggest that the maximum duration of trout sperm motility, at most 2 min (as a consequence of a depletion of ATP during the movement), is due to a low mitochondrial oxidative phosphorylation capacity.