We have shown that human spermatozoa generate and release reactive oxygen species that can be detected by chemiluminescence techniques. Analysis of the cellular mechanisms responsible for this activity suggests that the probe, luminol, undergoes an intracellular dioxygenation reaction mediated by hydrogen peroxide and a sperm peroxidase located within the acrosome. Support for this model included the following observations: (1) the luminol-dependent signal could be suppressed with peroxidase inhibitors, phenylhydrazine and sodium azide; (2) this suppression could be reversed by the addition of an azide-insensitive peroxidase, horse radish peroxidase (HRP); (3) inhibition of intracellular superoxide dismutase (SOD) with potassium cyanide (KCN) suppressed the luminol signal; (4) peroxidase activity could be detected in purified populations of human spermatozoa with 3,3',5,5' tetramethylbenzidine (TMB); (5) this peroxidase was active at the pH prevailing within the acrosomal vesicle; and (6) peroxidase activity and luminol-dependent chemiluminescence were minimal in spermatozoa exhibiting a congenital absence of acrosomes. Human spermatozoa could also generate lucigenin-dependent chemiluminescent signals that could neither be suppressed with peroxidase inhibitors nor enhanced by the addition of peroxidase. However, these signals could be enhanced by suppression of intracellular SOD with KCN or inhibited by exogenous SOD, suggesting that lucigenin was responding to superoxide anion released into the extracellular space. The ability of chemiluminescent techniques to detect and discriminate the production of superoxide and hydrogen peroxide by spermatozoa should facilitate the further analysis of reactive oxygen species as mediators of normal and abnormal human sperm function.