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Updated 02 November 2010

Fascinating sperm facts

Scientists have discovered that the most important gene in sperm production in humans and most animals originated 600 million years ago and hasn't changed much since.

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Your sperm is ancient. That’s not meant to be an insult and before you start freaking out and jumping up and down in dismay, let me reassure you that there is (most probably) nothing wrong with your sperm.

If you’re a healthy male, your testicles manufacture the little critters at an astonishing rate: 40 million to 1.2 billion sperm cells per ejaculation! What I’m referring to when calling your (and my own) sperm as ancient is the fascinating fact that scientists have recently discovered that sperm, as a biological entity, is 600 million years old.

Researchers at Chicago’s Northwestern University in the USA found that a gene called Boule, which is responsible for sperm production, is present in a wide range of animals, including some of the most primitive and prehistoric, as well as in human beings. According to Eugene Xu, one of the scientists involved in the study “this is the first clear evidence that suggests our ability to produce sperm is very ancient, probably originating in the dawn of animal evolution 600 million years ago.” Xu and his fellow researchers compared the Boule gene from a fruit fly, a sea urchin, a rooster, a rainbow trout, a mouse and humans and according to him, their “findings suggest that all animal sperm production likely comes from a common prototype.”

The Boule gene is the only gene known to exist exclusively for sperm production. While there are other genes involved in the process, all of them also have additional other functions, such as hormone regulation.

Previous studies have shown that many of the proteins present in semen – the transport medium for sperm cells – which play various rolls in reproduction, evolve very rapidly, while the Boule gene has remained virtually unaltered for millions of years, probably because of its vital biological function.

The new research findings by Xu and his colleagues aren’t just of academic value. They have several potential real-world applications:

  • they might help scientists develop a better understanding of male infertility and how to treat it;
  • they may offer new avenues in the search for an effective male contraceptive drug – when the Boule gene was disabled in a mouse, the animal produced no sperm, but appeared healthy otherwise; and
  • they may provide novel directions in the development of pesticides and medicines against parasites and germ carriers by helping to control their reproduction.

(Andrew Luyt, Health24, October 2010)

 
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