Diluents containing sonicated liposomes of purified phosphatidylserine (PS), phosphatidylcholine (PC) with varying fatty acyl chain lengths and double bonds and cholesterol (CH) alone or in combination, or egg yolk lecithin were evaluated for protection of bull sperm during cold shock produced by rapid cooling from 25 to 0 degrees C and during freezing and thawing. Bull semen was washed twice and diluted to 50 X 10(6) sperm/ml in diluents containing no lipid, 0.5 or 5 mM sonicated lipid or 20% egg yolk and plunged into ice water to cold shock the sperm. Sperm so treated were frozen using conventional methods. The percentage of progressively motile sperm (MS) was estimated prior to cooling, after cold shock, and after freezing and thawing. Lipids with fatty acyl chains of less than 12 carbons were toxic to sperm cells. Phosphatidylserine alone or in combination with PC or CH, but not PC or CH alone, protected sperm from cold shock as well as did egg yolk lecithin liposomes or egg yolk. Liposomes of PS/PC or PS/CH were not better than PS in protecting sperm from cold shock. Lipid concentrations of 0.5 mM were more effective than liposomes at 5 mM in protecting sperm during freezing and thawing. During freezing, PS alone or in combination with PC partially protected sperm, but only PS/CH was as effective as egg yolk in protecting sperm from freeze-thaw damage. It is concluded that defined diluents, particularly those containing PS, may be useful in studies of cryobiology of spermatozoa.