It’s early in the week but sperm seems to be wriggling its way into the forefront of the scientific conversation thanks to a trio of stories that have led to some important discoveries about the flagella-wagging reproductive cells.
Sperm have had a big year in the scientific community in general. Just last month scientists pinpointed exactly how the little guys “slither” and, earlier this year, there was news that bacon and strawberries can reduce sperm count. That's not to mention further advancements in epigenetics, the study of markers in our DNA that's gaining ground.
There was also the discovery that the mouse has the largest sperm in the animal kingdom, bigger than most animals, including elephants. (Don’t worry, it's all about female reproductive tract size, anyway.)
So, huzzah sperm. Here’s why the little guys are having such a big moment.
Sperm Transfers More than Just Genes
Obesity has long been thought of as an inheritable disease, as children of portly fathers have a higher chance of packing on the pounds. The portly path is partly due to genetics and partly due to bad habits.
According to GEN, researchers at the University of Copenhagen recently combed through some old epigenetic studies, which “have suggested that times of famine can leave epigenetic traces in that last generation.” One study in particular focused on a famine in a small Swedish village that showed how grandchildren of those who lived through a period of nutritional stress were “more likely to develop cardio metabolic disease.”
What does this have to do with sperm? Epigenetic markers (chemical changes that switch genes “on” and “off”) had altered the structure of their family’s DNA — and were the result of genetic markers in the sperm or egg.
On this supposition, lead researcher Romain Barrès compared sperm cells from 13 lean and 10 obese men. He and his colleagues also traced six men before and after gastric-bypass surgery to see if this had any impact on their sperm cells. The results, as published in Cell Metabolism, proved that information about a father’s weight piggybacks on the genetic information sperms dutifully carry.
Does this mean that men should snip their tubes to prevent having children with weight issues? Of course not. It does, however, lead to one more things couples should consider before starting the conception game.
Online, Introverts Are the Most Sought-After Sperm Donors
The market for gametes is growing rapidly and, as a result, a large, informal network has appeared online.
“There,” per the Boston Globe, “women and perspective donors interact freely on message boards and websites, chatting while perusing each other’s profiles.” The article goes on to say that, as compared to a fertility clinic, an online interaction feels less formal and makes women more comfortable that their donors aren’t being coached into fitting a more appealing profile.
(Um. Do these folks not realize that has similar logic to “I’d rather find a date on craigslist because they’re real and someone on Hinge could be employing a dating coach to make him or her seem more enticing?” The web is full of creeps, psychos and imposters. I’ve got good money that says there will be some horrifying news stories in the near future about people duped by online sperm donors.)
Professors Stephen Whyte and Benno Torgier from the Queensland University of Technology dug into the donor websites to see how women choose potential gamete granters. They found that “men who are intellectual, shy, calm and methodical are selected to produce more children than those who are extroverted,” according to a press release.
"You would expect in an online setting, men would have to sell or promote themselves to women, and extroverted men should be better at doing that. But what we find is actually the opposite,” said Whyte.
To reach their conclusion, the pair interviewed 56 men between the ages of 23 and 66. They lived in Australia, Canada, the UK, Italy, Sweden and the U.S. Surveys were filled out between 2012 and 2013.
“Research has previously shown humans are good at judging personality traits as well as levels of intelligence with only minimal exposure to appearance and behaviours, and our findings certainly seem to support that,” said Whyte, who added that 73 percent of donators who helped women conceive kept some kind of correspondence with their fathered children.
Having Sex Twice in an Hour Increases Potency
Want to increase your chances of conception, or prevent your little guys from making it through the gate? Scientists recently found that having sex back-to-back or twice in an hour makes you produce a much more powerful sperm with a higher chance of conception.
Researchers at North Middlesex Hospital in London recruited 73 couples who were undergoing intrauterine insemination (IUI) and discovered that sperm becomes superpowered during round two. In fact, they were more than three times more fertile, with an IUI success rate of 20 percent.
The thinking? The first round is old, stored up sperm with a shorter life span. Since the second batch was, um, fresher and therefore more potent. If you’re trying to conceive, get a good night’s sleep, stock up on Gatorade and get ready to a couple of rounds.