Capacitation of bovine sperm was evaluated by determining the ability of sperm to fertilize bovine oocytes in vitro and to undergo an acrosome reaction upon exposure to lysophosphatidylcholine (LC). Incubation of sperm with heparin (10 micrograms/ml) increased the percentage of oocytes fertilized, but this required exposing sperm to heparin for at least 4 h before adding them to oocytes. There was no effect on the percentage of motile or acrosome-reacted sperm after exposure of noncapacitated sperm to 100 micrograms/ml LC for 15 min. When sperm were incubated for 4 h with heparin, exposure to 100 micrograms/ml LC for 15 min had no effect on the percentage of sperm that were motile, but the percentage of acrosome-reacted sperm increased from less than 10% to over 70%. The acrosome reactions (ARs) induced by LC were synchronous, reached maximal levels within 15 min, and differed (p less than 0.001) between sperm incubated under capacitating (with heparin) and noncapacitating conditions (without heparin). The time course required for heparin to capacitate sperm as judged by in vitro fertilization and to render sperm sensitive to LC induction of the AR were found to be similar. The percentage of ARs induced by LC and percentage of oocytes fertilized by sperm were found to be heparin-dose-dependent, with the maximum responses occurring at 5-10 micrograms/ml heparin. The correlation between the mean fertilization and LC-induced AR percentages was 0.997 (p less than 0.01). These studies demonstrate capacitation of bovine sperm by heparin requires at least a 4-h exposure of sperm to heparin and suggest that plasma membrane changes prior to an AR can be detected by exposure of bovine sperm to LC.