This study has assessed the effect of zinc on human sperm motility and the acrosome reaction in vitro. Progressively motile human sperm were selected by swim-up and by glass bead columns and then incubated in a medium in which capacitation happened in an asynchronous way. Different doses of zinc (1, 10, 100 and 1000 microM) were added for periods of 2, 4 or 6 h. Other samples were incubated with zinc (1000 microM), and after 1 h incubation, the zinc was removed. Aliquots of each culture were used to evaluate progressive motility and the acrosome reaction using a triple-stain technique. Sperm motility was reduced when the amount of zinc added was greater than or equal to 100 microM, and these doses also caused a significant reduction in the % of sperm undergoing the acrosome reaction. After removal of zinc and further incubation in zinc-free medium for 1 h, an increase in the percentage of motile and acrosome-reacted sperm was observed. However, the increase in acrosome reaction did not reach the values observed in controls. Results suggest that extracellular zinc acts as an inhibitor of human sperm motility and the acrosome reaction (and/or capacitation and the acrosome reaction). This inhibitory effect is reversible and occurs in a dose-dependent fashion. The probable mechanisms involved are discussed.