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BACKGROUND: The 12 kD FK506 binding protein FKBP12 is a cytosolic receptor for the immunosuppressant drugs FK506 and rapamycin. In addition to its critical role in drug-induced T-cell immunosuppression, FKBP12 associates physiologically with ryanodine and inositol 1,4,5-trisphosphate (IP3) receptors, regulating their ability to flux calcium. We investigated a role for FKBP12 in male reproductive physiology on the basis of our identification of extremely high levels of [3H]FK506 binding in male reproductive tissues. MATERIALS AND METHODS: [3H]FK506 binding studies were performed to identify tissues enriched with FK506 binding sites. The abundant [3H]FK506 binding sites identified in the male reproductive tract were localized by [3H]FK506 autoradiography. FK506 affinity chromatography was employed to purify FKBP from epididymal fluid. Anti-FKBP12 Western analysis was used to confirm the identity of the purified FKBP. The binding of exogenous FKBP12 to sperm was evaluated by [32P]FKBP12 binding studies and [33P]FKBP12 autoradiography. The effect of recombinant FKBP12 on sperm motility was investigated using a Hamilton Thorne motility analyzer. RESULTS: Male reproductive tissues contained high levels of [3H]FK506 binding. The localization of [3H]FK506 binding sites to the tubular epithelium of the caput epididymis and the lumen of the cauda and vas deferens suggested that FKBP is released in the male reproductive tract. FKBP12 was purified from epididymal plasma by FK506 affinity chromatography. Radiolabeled FKBP12 specifically bound to immature but not mature sperm. In sperm motility studies, FKBP12-treated caput sperm exhibited double the curvilinear velocity of untreated controls. CONCLUSIONS: High levels of FKBP12 are released in the male reproductive tract and specifically associate with maturing sperm. Recombinant FKBP12 enhances the curvilinear velocity of immature sperm, suggesting a role for FKBP12 in motility initiation. The highest concentrations of soluble FKBP12 in the male reproductive tract occur in the lumen of the vas deferens, a site of sperm storage and the conduit for ejaculated sperm. Preservation of mammalian sperm for reproductive technologies may be optimized by supplementing incubation or storage media with FKBP12.