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April 22, 2010 Volume 31, No. 28

Protein markers allow fertility researchers to cull defective sperm samples

Quality control

Study has potential benefit for human research

Selecting perfect sperm cells is a hard job, but MU researcher Peter Sutovsky aims to find a better way. His work with protein markers to identify defective sperm could one day reduce challenges in artificial insemination for farm animals and infertility treatment for humans.

 “In farm animals we’re hoping to develop a process where you can cull the inferior males with poor fertility,” says Sutovsky, associate professor of animal sciences and of medicine. “That can truly affect the bottom line in the pork and cattle industries.”

His research builds on studies of ubiquitin, a protein dubbed the “kiss of death” by researchers because it attaches to defective sperm, acting as a natural quality-control safeguard. Because ubiquitin-tagged sperm appear normal even under the microscope, assisted fertilization treatments can’t take advantage of this safeguard.

Sutovsky is working to change that. He and colleagues have been developing techniques in which small metallic particles recognize and bind to ubiquitin on the surface of bad sperm. “You can mix it with bull semen, for example, and then by using a strong magnet you can pull down the bad sperm that have ubiquitin on their surface and leave the good sperm in the semen dose,” he says.

“In the end, the artificial insemination companies may end up using a smaller dose of sperm per artificial insemination service,” Sutovsky says. “That will help their bottom line if we can develop this technique to be simple, quick, efficient and cheap.”

 He notes that these findings benefit fertility research across species and could lead to advances in human fertility treatments.