In genetic engineering and fertility, sperm sorting is a technique allowing the selection of the type of sperm cell to fertilize the egg cell with. Furthermore, this technique can be used to distinguish which sperm are the most healthy. Additionally, it can determine more specific traits, such as sex selection in which sperm are separated into X- (female) and Y- (male) chromosome bearing populations based on their difference in DNA content.
Subsequently, the resultant ‘sex-sorted’ spermatozoa are then used in artificial insemination when farming animals or in-vitro fertilization (IVF) in human medical practice. Moreover, newly applied methods such as flow cytometry expand the possibilities of sperm sorting. Despite this, these techniques are cumbersome, expensive, and risk damaging the DNA of the sperm.
Selecting the gender of your child
Now, a study from researchers at Hiroshima University develops a simple, reversible chemical treatment capable of separating X-bearing sperm from Y-bearing sperm. Subsequently, a sex-selection technique using sperm in fertilization procedures. The team states that even though their study was performed in mice, the technique is likely to be widely applicable to other mammals also. The opensource study is published in the journal PLOS.
Previous studies show during sperm development in male mammals, the X and Y chromosomes are segregated into different cells. This means an individual sperm will carry either one or the other. Therefore, X chromosome carrying sperm give rise to female offspring and sperm bearing a Y chromosome produce male offspring.
The Y chromosome is known to carry very few genes, however, the X chromosome carries many. Moreover, some of these genes remain active in the maturing sperm. Consequently, this difference in gene expression between X- and Y-bearing sperm provides a theoretical basis for distinguishing the two. This would mean that sperm could be cheaply separated in fertilization procedures for sex selection of offspring.
The current study identifies chemicals with the ability to bind to two proteins on the female sperm cell’s surface. In addition, these proteins are coded specifically by the X-bearing sperm’s genes. Accordingly, once the chemicals bind to this specific protein they slow down the movement of X-carrying sperm without affecting the Y-carrying ones.
The current study identifies almost 500 active genes only present in X-bearing sperm, of which 18 genes encode receptors on the sperm cell’s surface. Results show a chemical that binds to a pair of receptors on the X-bearing sperm cells’ surface, called Toll-like receptor 7 and 8 (TLR7/8), slowed sperm motility. Also, this was done without impairing either sperm fertilization ability or viability. Data findings show the effect was due to impaired energy production within the X-bearing sperm. Indeed, the effect could be reversed by the removal of the chemical from the medium.
Slower sperm for sex selection
Results show treatment of mouse sperm with this retarding chemical, followed by IVF with the fastest swimmers, led to litters 90% male. Data findings show when the slower swimmers were used instead, the litters were 81% female. The lab states they have also succeeded in the selective production of male or female offspring in cattle and pigs using this method.
The team surmises they have developed a cheap and simple technique allowing them to separate mouse sperm carrying an X chromosome from those carrying a Y chromosome. For the future, the researchers state their technique has the potential to greatly simplify sex selection for either IVF or artificial insemination in animals.
Source: Hiroshima University
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Michelle is a health industry veteran who taught and worked in the field before training as a science journalist.
Featured by numerous prestigious brands and publishers, she specializes in clinical trial innovation--expertise she gained while working in multiple positions within the private sector, the NHS, and Oxford University.