A flow cytometric procedure was used to follow the effect of bicarbonate, a key inducer of sperm capacitation in vitro, on the transbilayer behavior of C6NBD-phospholipids in the plasma membrane of living acrosome-intact boar spermatozoa under physiological conditions. In the absence of bicarbonate, 97% of C6NBD-phosphatidylserine and 78% of C6NBD-phosphatidylethanolamine was rapidly translocated from the outer leaflet to the inner, whereas relatively little C6NBD-phosphatidylcholine and C6NBD-sphingomyelin was translocated (15% and 5%, respectively). Inclusion of 15 mM bicarbonate/5%CO(2) markedly slowed down the rates of translocation of the aminophospholipids without altering their final distribution, whereas it increased the proportions of C6NBD-phosphatidylcholine and C6NBD-sphingomyelin translocated (30% and 20%, respectively). Bicarbonate activated very markedly the outward translocation of all four phospholipid classes. The changes in C6NBD-phospholipid behavior were accompanied by increased membrane lipid disorder as detected by merocyanine 540, and also by increased potential for phospholipase catabolism of the C6NBD-phospholipid probes. All three changes were mediated via a cAMP-dependent protein phosphorylation pathway. We suspect that the changes result from an activation of the non- specific bidirectional translocase ('scramblase'). They have important implications with respect to sperm fertilizing function.