Histone-to-protamine exchange in haploid spermatids is preceded by hyperacetylation of core histones resulting in decreased DNA-histone interaction. During normal spermatogenesis, immunohistochemistry with a polyclonal antihyperacetylated histone H4 antibody displayed a strong signal in nuclei of elongating spermatids and, in addition, spermatogonia. Quantitative analysis revealed 98.2 +/- 1.1% of immunopositive spermatids. The percentage of positive spermatids was significantly reduced in infertile men exhibiting at least qualitatively normal spermatogenesis (scores 10-8, 93.1 +/- 6.6%) and impaired spermatogenesis (scores 7-1, 74.9 +/- 23.4%). In seminiferous tubules showing spermatogenic arrest at the level of round spermatids, only 59.5 +/- 16.5% of spermatids were immunopositive for hyperacetylated histone H4. These data demonstrate that the decrease of histone acetylation in spermatids associated with impaired spermatogenesis corresponds with the well known reduction of protamine expression in these cells and confirms the essential role of histone hyperacetylation for correct histone-to-protamine exchange. In seminiferous tubules exhibiting round spermatid maturation arrest, there was an additional signal in nuclei of spermatocytes, suggesting that premature hyperacetylation of histone H4 may result in precocious histone-to-protamine exchange followed by infertility. This is in accordance with data from transgenic mice, where it has been demonstrated that premature expression of protamine-1 results in precocious chromatin condensation followed by sterility.