Mammalian spermatozoa have been dissected by a variety of chemical techniques to yield free heads, tails with attached midpieces, and tails without mitochondria. By brief exposure to trypsin, mouse and rat spermatozoa were cleaved at the junction of the head and the tail, while human, guinea pig and rabbit spermatozoa were cleaved by trypsin only after prior incubation with a sulphhydryl reducing agent. Treatment with acid or base cleaved spermatozoa of all species examined. In contrast, exposure of spermatozoa to 1% sarkosyl NL-97 resulted in the quantitative cleavage of mouse cells without noticeable effect on the spermatozoa of the other species. Mitochondria were removed from the midpiece of intact sperm and isolated tails by gentle shaking after treatment with reducing agents. Homogeneous populations of spermatozoan subcellular components were obtained by density gradient centrifugation. Ultrastructural analysis showed that cleavage of mouse spermatozoa by trypsin occurs at a specific location in the neck of the cell without trypsin occurs at a specific location in the neck of the cell without observable damage to other cell structures. The basal plate remained attached to the head structures. In contrast cleavage of spermatozoa by sarkosyl or acid left the basal plate attached to the spermatozoan midpiece. Sarkosyl also removed the plasma membrane and extracted mitochondrial components. Treatment with acid or base also resulted in vesiculation of the plasma membrane and dissolution of the acrosome. Molecular probes have also been used to facilitate mapping of the cell surface. Each mouse spermatozoon has about 10-7 receptors for the lectin concanavalin A. Binding of fluorescein-labelled concanavalin A indicated that the majority of the receptors is in the acrosomal region; this polar distribution was confirmed by measurement of the number of sites on purified heads and tails. In addition, the low molecular weight probe ANS bound to the plasma membrane of spermatozoa from all species examined, with immediate immobilization of the cells. Ethidium bromide bound to the spermatozoan head without affecting motility.