The fluorescent calcium indicator, fluo-3, was loaded as the membrane permeant tetraacetoxymethyl (AM) ester into cauda epididymal mouse sperm at 25 degrees C for 20 min in the absence of bovine serum albumin (BSA) and presence of the dispersant, Pluronic F-127. Excess indicator was removed by two centrifugation washes at 100g for 10 min, a procedure that did not impair sperm motility. Upon resuspension in medium containing 20 mg/ml BSA to promote capacitation, the sperm cells exhibited readily detectable fluorescence uniformly distributed in the cytoplasm. Cell fluorescence was stable over the time of the experiments and was responsive to changes in intracellular calcium concentration, [Ca2+]i. Initial [Ca2+]i was 231 +/- 58 nM (+/- SE, n = 43). Addition of heat-solubilized mouse zonae pellucidae to capacitated sperm increased [Ca2+]i by 106 +/- 19 nM (+/- SE, n = 18), the higher steady-state concentration being reached after 30 min. Subsequent addition of the non-fluorescent calcium ionophore Br-A23187 resulted in a further increase of 114 +/- 18 nM (+/- SE, n = 18), the higher steady-state concentration being reached after 6 min. The increase in [Ca2+]i induced by solubilized zonae pellucidae was largely blocked by 3-quinuclidinyl benzilate (QNB), an antagonist of muscarinic receptors that was earlier shown to block the zona pellucida induced acrosome reaction in mouse sperm (Florman and Storey, 1982: Dev Biol 91:121-130). This [Ca2+]i increase was completely blocked by the tyrosine kinase inhibitor, tyrphostin A48, and by the inactivator of G1 proteins, pertussis toxin. At the concentrations at which they blocked the zona pellucida-induced increase in [Ca2+]i, all three inhibitors also blocked the zona pellucida-induced acrosome reaction. These results indicate that [Ca2+]i increase in is an early, if not the initial, reaction in the sequence leading to zona pellucida induced acrosomal exocytosis in mouse sperm. The observation that the three inhibitors, each having a different mode of action, all block the zona pellucida induced [Ca2+]i suggests that the sperm plasma membrane receptors mediating the zona pellucida induced acrosome reaction may function as a complex, whose formation is activated by zona pellucida ligand binding.