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Home / Science / Human sperm, while swimming, look like “playful otters”, studying the findings

Human sperm, while swimming, look like “playful otters”, studying the findings



It wasn’t long before he decided to look at his ejaculate – certainly not by chance – and discovered tiny, spinning creatures with tails that he called “animals.”

These creatures “moved forward because of the movement of their tail, such as a snake or eel floating in the water,” van Leeuwenhoek wrote in 1678. To the Secretary of the Royal Society of the United Kingdom.

As scientists have looked from top to bottom under microscopes over the centuries, there is no doubt about what their eyes saw and captured in the films: Sperm bathed by moving their tails from side to side.

Why shouldn’t we trust our eyes? So that is what science believed from now on.

Sperm Deception

It turns out our eyes were wrong.

Now, using state-of-the-art 3D microscopy and math, a new study says we were actually victims of “sperm deception.”
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“Sperm are highly deceptive little creatures. Our new study using 3D microscopy shows that we are all victims of sperm deception,” said study author Hermes Gadelha, head of the University’s Polymate Laboratory. Bristol Department of Engineering Mathematics UK.
A 3D image of the sperm head is shown here.

“If you want to see a real tail beating, you have to move along with the sperm and rotate with the sperm. So almost like you had to make (the camera) really small and stick it to the sperm head,” Gadelha said.

Gadelha co-authors Gabriel Corkidi and Alberto Darsson of Mexico have developed a way to do this at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico. Using state-of-the-art tools, including an ultra-fast camera that can record more than 55,000 frames per second, researchers were able to see that moving from side to side was truly an optical illusion.

In reality, the sperm tail is tied on one side only.

That one-sided stroke should force the sperm to float in an eternal circle, Gadelha said. But no, sperm were smarter than that.

“Human sperm have figured out if they swim by swimming, much like playful otters squeezed through water, their one-sided blow will moderate away, and they will swim forward,” said Gadelha, a fertility math expert.

“Sperm rotation is something that is very important. It allows sperm to regain symmetry and actually be able to move straight,” he said.

Instead of side to side, the sperm rotates in a corkscrew, which counteracts the one-sided tail beating.  This is very similar to how otters spin in the water while playing.

Surprising science

Gadelha said the findings were a real surprise, so the team spent nearly two years repeating the experiment and cross-checking the math. Results: Like the Earth turned out not flat, the semen really does not fly like snakes or eels.

This 2D sperm swimming animation illustrates what is seen when viewed through a microscope.

So why is this important?

“It may be that the rolling motion hides some subtle aspects of the health of this sperm or how well it can travel quickly,” Gadelha said.

“These are all hypothetical questions. We hope more scientists and fertility experts will be interested and ask, ‘Okay, how does this affect infertility?'”

As for what seems contrary to the assumptions of 300 years of science, Gadelha is modest.

“God, I always feel deeply that I’m always wrong,” he said.

“Who knows what we’ll find next? It’s a measurement provided by an instrument with flaws. At the moment, we’re right, but as science progresses, we can make mistakes again. And, hopefully, it will be something very exciting to learn in the next few years.”


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