Hyaluronidases (hyases) are a family of enzymes that catalyse the breakdown of hyaluronic acid (HA), which is abundant in the extracellular matrix. Two unlinked gene clusters encode these six proteins: three each in the somatic (or ubiquitous) acid-active subgroup and the neutral-active germ-cell subgroup. This review analyses the data on the expression and role of hyases in gamete biology and fertilization, using electronic databases until October 2010. Evidence indicates that hyases are membrane proteins with multifunctional essential, enzymatic and non-enzymatic, roles (cumulus penetration, zona binding and HA receptor) in fertilization. While sperm adhesion molecule-1 (SPAM1), which has neutral and acidic (bimodal) activity, is the widely conserved mammalian sperm hyase, it co-exists with an acidic hyase in murine and human spermatozoa. Thus, sperm function depends on the concerted activity of both germ cell and 'somatic' hyases. Some hyases are in low abundance in the ovary, somatic testicular cells, the male accessory organs and the male and female genital tracts where they are secreted and acquired by spermatozoa. The latter opens up the possibility of treating hyase-deficient spermatozoa via assisted reproductive technology. The findings challenge the existing classification of hyases, and support the notion that hyase activities are polygenic traits controlled by as many as five hyase genes in mice. Multiple sperm hyases may function cooperatively in a quantitative system and/or serve redundant roles. Unsolved problems include functional redundancy, which can be addressed by double gene-knockouts, and identifying the murine hyase(s) involved in zona binding or whether this role shows species specificity.
© 2011 The Author. International Journal of Andrology © 2011 European Academy of Andrology.