Background: Mammalian oocytes are activated by intracellular calcium (Ca(2+)) oscillations following gamete fusion. Recent evidence implicates a sperm-specific phospholipase C zeta, PLCζ, which is introduced into the oocyte following membrane fusion, as the responsible factor. This review summarizes the current understanding of human oocyte activation failure and describes recent discoveries linking certain cases of male infertility with defects in PLCζ expression and activity. How these latest findings may influence future diagnosis and treatment options are also discussed.
Methods: Systematic literature searches were performed using PubMed, ISI-Web of Knowledge and The Cochrane Library. We also scrutinized material from the United Nations and World Health Organization databases (UNWHO) and the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA).
Results and conclusions: Although ICSI results in average fertilization rates of 70%, complete or virtually complete fertilization failure still occurs in 1-5% of ICSI cycles. While oocyte activation failure can, in some cases, be overcome by artificial oocyte activators such as calcium ionophores, a more physiological oocyte activation agent might release Ca(2+) within the oocyte in a more efficient and controlled manner. As PLCζ is now widely considered to be the physiological agent responsible for activating mammalian oocytes, it represents both a novel diagnostic biomarker of oocyte activation capability and a possible mode of treatment for certain types of male infertility.