Mammalian sperm must undergo a physiological maturation, termed capacitation, before they are able to fertilize eggs. Despite its importance, the molecular mechanisms underlying capacitation are poorly understood. In this paper, we describe the capacitation phenotype of sperm lacking the long isoform of beta1,4-galactosyltransferase I (GalT I), a sperm surface protein that functions as a receptor for the zona pellucida glycoprotein, ZP3, and as an inducer of the acrosome reaction following ZP3-dependent aggregation. As expected, wild-type sperm must undergo capacitation in order to bind the zona pellucida and undergo a Ca(2+) ionophore-induced acrosome reaction. By contrast, GalT I-null sperm behave as though they are precociously capacitated, in that they demonstrate maximal binding to the zona pellucida and greatly increased sensitivity to ionophore-induced acrosome reactions without undergoing capacitation in vitro. The loss of GalT I from sperm results in an inability to bind epididymal glycoconjugates that normally maintain sperm in an 'uncapacitated' state; removing these decapacitating factors from wild-type sperm phenocopies the capacitation behavior of GalT I-null sperm. Interestingly, capacitation of GalT I-null sperm is independent of the presence of albumin, Ca(2+) and HCO(3)(-); three co-factors normally required by wild-type sperm to achieve capacitation. This implies that intracellular targets of albumin, Ca(2+) and/or HCO(3)(-) may be constitutively active in GalT I-null sperm. Consistent with this, GalT I-null sperm have increased levels of cAMP that correlate closely with both the accelerated kinetics and co-factor-independence of GalT I-null sperm capacitation. By contrast, the kinetics of protein tyrosine phosphorylation and sperm motility are unaltered in mutant sperm relative to wild-type. These data suggest that GalT I may function as a negative regulator of capacitation in the sperm head by suppressing intracellular signaling pathways that promote this process.