The penetration of zona pellucida-free hamster ova by human spermatozoa has been used to quantitate sperm penetration potential. However, since mammalian eggs in vitro have limited viability, the effect of in vitro aging on the ability of hamster ova to be penetrated by human spermatozoa was examined. Zona-free ova maintained at room temperature (25 degrees C) lost their ability to be subsequently penetrated with a half-life of 50.1 +/- 8.8 minutes. This was partly the result of removing the zona pellucida by trypsin digestion, since zona-free oocytes in the presence of trypsin inhibitor or zona pellucida-intact oocytes had half-lives of 99.1 +/- 15.2 and 120.5 +/- 17.4 minutes, respectively. Reduction in penetration rates associated with ovum aging did not appear to be due to loss of viability and could be completely prevented by maintaining the ova on ice (4 degrees C). In the presence of TEST-yolk buffer at 4 degrees C, ova retained (100%) their ability to be penetrated for up to 24 hours and were morphologically indistinguishable from fresh ova. These observations show that ovum aging in vitro at 25 degrees C is much greater than previously anticipated. This may result in artifactually low and variable scores in the penetration bioassay.