The lipid composition of the sperm membrane has a significant effect upon the functional characteristics of spermatozoa. In the present study we investigated the fatty acid (FA) composition of subpopulations of spermatozoa separated on a discontinuous Percoll gradient (47:90%) and the FA composition of phospholipids (PL) of sperm heads and tails in both normal and abnormal semen samples.

In normozoospermic samples, polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) represented 34.0 +/- 1.3 (mean +/- SE, mole %) and 25.6 +/- 1.2% of total FA of PL of the 47 and 90% Percoll fractions respectively. Docosahexaenoic acid (22:6omega3, DHA) contributed to more than 60% of total PUFA. DHA was significantly lower in both the 47% (P < 0.05) and the 90% (P < 0.01) Percoll fractions of oligozoospermic samples and in the 90% Percoll layer of asthenozoospermic samples (P < 0.01), compared with normozoospermic samples.

The omega6/omega3 ratio was significantly increased in both Percoll fractions of samples with oligozoospermia (47%, P < 0.001 and 90%, P < 0.001) or with asthenozoospermia (47%, P < 0.05 and 90%, P < 0.001) compared with normozoospermic samples. The oxidative potential index (OPI) of spermatozoa recovered from the 47% Percoll layer was significantly higher (P < 0.0001) than of those recovered from the 90% Percoll. Mean melting point (MMP), an index of membrane fluidity, was significantly lower in head than in tails (P < 0.01) of spermatozoa, and also in both the 47% (P < 0.01) and 90% (P < 0.001) Percoll fractions of normozoospermic samples in comparison with oligozoospermic samples.

The MMP was significantly higher (P < 0.05) in samples of patients with idiopathic oligo/asthenozoospermia, varicocele, and male accessory gland infection (MAGI).

These differences in FA composition of PL in subpopulations of human spermatozoa, and in their heads and tails may be related to sperm maturity and to differences in physiological function.