Following the discovery of mammalian sperm capacitation and its fundamental importance for the acquisition of fertilizing potential, it has gradually become possible to identify some specific molecules and molecular events that play pivotal roles in the "switching on" of spermatozoa. These are discussed in the context of the promotion and regulation of capacitation, emphasizing differences between commonly used conditions in vitro and the environment in vivo where spermatozoa normally undergo capacitation. Although typical culture media used in vitro do support capacitation, they do not prevent capacitated cells from undergoing spontaneous acrosome reactions and so losing fertilizing potential. This is not a problem in vitro, but could be in vivo where few spermatozoa reach the site of fertilization. Several small molecules, known to be present in vivo, have been shown in vitro to bind to spermatozoa and to regulate capacitation, first accelerating capacitation and then inhibiting spontaneous acrosome reactions, by regulating CAMP production. Since spermatozoa would contact these molecules during and after ejaculation, it is plausible that they serve a similar function in vivo. The mechanisms whereby the presence or absence of decapacitation factors might alter plasma membrane architecture and so alter functionality of a number of membrane-associated enzymes involved in capacitation are also considered. Finally, several unresolved issues relating to events during capacitation are discussed.