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Sperm are male reproductive cells containing 23 chromosomes — exactly half the number necessary to create an embryo when joined with a female reproductive cell or ovum. This process is the very beginning of fetal development and the start of human life. Scientists throughout history have researched ways to cure infertility and start this process. Artificial sperm are genetically engineered sperm cells created from other types of cells.
The first synthetic sperm cells were created in 2009 by researchers at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom. Researchers took stem cells, so called “blank cells,” from new embryos. Using a mixture of chemicals and vitamins, researchers were able to modify the stem cells to replicate sperm structure. These artificial sperm were physically identical to biological sperm both in terms of structure and movement.
One out of every six couples suffers from infertility, and there is a 50 percent chance that either partner in an infertile couple is physically incapable of reproducing. Artificial sperm were created as a possible solution to male infertility. It is possible for men who were previously thought infertile to father children via the creation of these artificial cells.
Creating sperm in a laboratory setting carries potential ethical and legal ramifications. It is still unclear whether or not these artificial reproductive cells are potent enough to fertilize female egg cells. Stem cells must be harvested from live embryos, a process that is illegal in some countries and controversial around the world. The argument over whether life begins at birth, conception or at some point in between weighs heavily on the creation of artificial sperm and is fraught with religious, political and personal opinions. Because the technology is still new, few ethical guidelines exist to prevent abuse or mistreatment of viable artificial sperm.
Human testing of artificial sperm technology has not occurred, but scientists at Kyoto University in Japan have tested the technology on laboratory mice. When artificial mouse sperm were united with mouse ova and implanted into female mice, the babies were carried to term. As the mice born from the synthetic sperm grew up, they remained healthy and were capable of producing offspring.
The technology behind artificial sperm, the methodology of use, and the biology of growth are still developing. While the technology is currently unavailable to help infertile couples achieve parenthood, scientists are optimistic for the future. The process used to create synthetic sperm could allow researchers to pinpoint the causes and possible solutions of male infertility.