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Glowing green sperm lights fertility research

Warning: High hamster content

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Researchers studying male infertility now have a new way of studying sperm function, thanks to groundbreaking work from Oxford University.

An Oxford research team has managed to introduce a synthetic gene into live hamsters in such a way that the gene is then expressed in mature sperm. The gene in question, which was nicked from a jellyfish, makes the sperm a lovely fluorescent green.

 Hamster sperm expressing a fluorescent green protein

The new technique, details of which have been published in the journal Biology of Reproduction, will help scientists better understand how sperm works, and consequently, why and how things go wrong.

A recent study found that one in seven British couples have fertility problems, and a third of these have an unknown cause.

Traditionally, playing around with a sperm cell's genetic makeup has been tricky. Unlike many other cells, which can be grown and genetically modified in a petri dish, sperm cells are very small, oddly shaped and very short lived when taken out of the body, making it impossible to grow sperm cell cultures.

Sadly, the fluorescent green gene was introduced solely for demonstration purposes, not to create a real-world Incredible Hulk, the lead researcher on the study, Dr John Parrington of the Department of Pharmacology in Oxford, explained.

"We created green sperm to show this approach could work. But our real aim is to use this technique to study the function of genes that are important during fertilization and that may cause infertility if they become defective," he said.

The technique is also likely to be useful to researchers who need to genetically modify animals for their work. Currently, these so-called transgenic animals are created by messing around with the DNA in an egg. But this is not terribly efficient, and doesn't work with hamsters or guinea pigs, which are apparently important model animals for medical research.

As for why hamsters? Apparently hamster sperm is in many respects, very similar to human sperm. Nothing to do with any of the other things you were probably thinking. ®

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