Cortical reaction

The cortical reaction, also known as the zona reaction, occurs when a sperm cell unites with the egg's plasma membrane, altering the zona pellucida which prevents other sperm from binding to and entering the egg.

The cortical reaction is exocytosis of the egg's cortical granules. Cortical granules are secretory vesicles that reside just below the egg's plasma membrane. When the fertilizing sperm contacts the egg plasma membrane, it causes calcium to be released from storage sites in the egg, raising the intracellular free calcium concentration. This triggers fusion of the cortical granule membranes with the egg plasma membrane, liberating the contents of the granules to the extracellular space. Fusion begins near the site of sperm contact, and then as the wave of calcium release sweeps around the egg, a wave of cortical granule fusion results. The contents of the granules vary with the species, and are not fully understood.

In the well-studied sea urchin model system, the granule contents modify a protein coat on the outside of the plasma membrane (the vitelline layer) so that it is released from the membrane. The released cortical granule proteins exert a colloid osmotic pressure causing water to enter the space between the plasma membrane and the vitelline layer, and the vitelline layer expands away from the egg surface. This is easily visible through a microscope and is known as "elevation of the fertilization envelope". Some of the former granule contents adhere to the fertilization envelope, and it is extensively modified and cross-linked. As the fertilization envelope elevates, non-fertilizing sperm are lifted away from the egg plasma membrane, and as they are not able to pass through the fertilization envelope, they are prevented from entering the egg. Therefore, the cortical reaction prevents polyspermic fertilization, a lethal event. Another cortical granule component, polysaccharide-rich hyalin, remains adherent to the outer surface of the plasma membrane, and becomes part of the hyaline layer.

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