Sperms don’t swim — scientists have been wrong for the last 350 years – ThePrint


Representational Image | Pixapay
Representational Image | Pixapay


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Sperm is critical for the fertilisation of almost every living organism on our planet, including humans. To reproduce, human sperm have to swim a distance equivalent to climbing Mount Everest to find the egg. They complete this epic journey simply by wiggling their tail, moving fluid to swim forwards. Though over 50 million sperm will fail to reach the egg – the equivalent to more than six times the entire population of London or New York – it only takes one single sperm in order to fertilise an egg that will eventually become a human being.

Sperm was first discovered in 1677 – but it took roughly 200 years before scientists agreed on how humans are actually formed. The “preformationists” believed that each spermatozoa contained a tiny, miniaturised human – the homunculus. They believed that the egg simply provided a place for the sperm to grow.

On the other hand, the “epigenesists” argued that both males and females contributed to form a new being, and discoveries in the 1700s showed more evidence for this theory. Though scientists now better understand the role that sperm plays in ew, our latest research has discovered that sperm have actually been fooling scientists this whole time.

One of the first microscopes was developed in the 17th century by Antonie van Leeuwenhoek. He used a blob of molten glass that he carefully ground and polished to create a powerful lens. Some of them could magnify an object 270 times. Remarkably, a better lens was not created for over 200 years.

Leeuwenhoek’s lenses made him the first explorer of the microscopic world, able to see objects including bacteria, the inside of our cells – and sperm. When Leeuwenhoek first discovered sperm, he described it as a “living animalcule” with a “tail, which, when swimming, lashes with a snakelike movement, like eels in water”.

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Strikingly, our perception of how sperm swims hasn’t change since. Anyone using a modern microscope today still makes the very same observation: sperm swim forward by wiggling their tail from side-to-side. But as our latest research shows, we’ve actually been wrong about how sperm swim for the last 350 years.

Using state-of-the-art 3D microscopy technology, our team of researchers from the UK and Mexico, were able to mathematically reconstruct the rapid movement of the sperm tail in 3D. Not only does sperm’s size make them difficult to study – its tail only measures half a hair’s breadth – they’re also fast.

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