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How the body prevents multiple sperm from fertilizing an egg

Scientists have unveiled a critical mechanism in human reproduction, learning exactly how the human body ensures that just a single sperm fertilizes an egg, thus preventing a condition known as polyspermy. This condition, characterized by the fusion of multiple sperm with an egg, can be detrimental to embryo development.

This fascinating study, which also sheds light on the atomic structure of the egg coat and its implications for infertility and contraception, was conducted at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) by a team of researchers from the Karolinska Institutet.

Understanding the root causes of infertility

Infertility is a challenge affecting approximately 15% of couples globally, as reported by the World Health Organization (WHO). A notable cause of infertility is linked to genetic mutations affecting the egg coat, formally known as the zona pellucida (ZP).

The ZP is a vital extracellular matrix that nurtures the egg and plays a crucial role in fertilization and embryo protection until implantation into the uterus. It is composed of proteins that assemble into filaments, creating a protective mesh around the egg.

Mutations in the genes responsible for these proteins can result in defects or an absence of this protective mesh, leading to infertility. However, the prevalence of such pathogenic mutations among infertile women remains unclear, primarily due to the lack of comprehensive genomic sequencing.

Sperm, egg, and the zona pellucida (ZP)

Luca Jovine, a professor at Karolinska Institutet and the study’s lead researcher, emphasizes the importance of understanding fertilization processes at the molecular level. The collaborative effort aimed to elucidate how the arrangement of ZP filaments prevents an egg from being fertilized by more than one sperm.

Historically, it was known that after sperm fusion, the egg releases an enzyme that cleaves a major ZP protein called ZP2, subsequently hardening the egg coat to prevent further sperm penetration.

However, the molecular mechanics linking these events remained a mystery. Jovine explains, “We knew these events were associated, but a molecular mechanism linking the puzzle pieces was missing.”

Viewing the egg coat with high-tech microscopy

The research team embarked on an in-depth investigation into the structure of ZP2 before and after this cleavage, utilizing advanced techniques such as X-ray crystallography and cryo-electron microscopy.

Daniele de Sanctis, a scientist at the ESRF and co-author of the study, marveled at the ability to observe such fundamental life processes at an atomic level, attributing the breakthrough to the cutting-edge capabilities of ESRF beamlines.

“Seeing the atomic details of such a fundamental process of life is simply amazing. Throughout the years, we have been applying the state of the art of what the ESRF beamlines could offer to solve the structure of the molecular bricks that compose ZP,” de Santis said.

The findings revealed that the cleavage of ZP2 enables it to form new interactions with other ZP2 molecules, generating a network of cross-links that tighten the egg coat’s mesh. This mechanism effectively prevents additional sperm from penetrating the ZP.

Jovine likens this to a zipper being closed, highlighting its logical efficiency from an evolutionary standpoint as it blocks polyspermy without relying on sperm attachment, which can vary across species.

New horizons for infertility treatment and contraception

These discoveries not only advance our understanding of reproductive biology but also hold significant promise for reproductive medicine.

Jovine points out, “For the first time, we have a molecular view of how the egg coat’s architecture changes after fertilization and its impact on function. This insight enables us to better understand the growing number of human ZP gene mutations associated with female infertility.”

Furthermore, detailed knowledge of the egg coat’s structure could pave the way for diagnostic applications and the development of non-hormonal contraceptives, offering hope to those affected by infertility and seeking alternative contraceptive methods.

Deeper understanding of sperm and egg dynamics

In summary, the significant research conducted by the team from Karolinska Institutet and their international collaborators marks a significant milestone in our understanding of human reproduction. The scientists cracked the complex mechanics of the egg coat and its pivotal role as sperm gatekeeper, preventing polyspermy.

By unveiling the intricate molecular processes that fortify the egg post-fertilization, this study deepens our comprehension of fertility and its genetic underpinnings and opens new avenues for innovative infertility treatments and the development of non-hormonal contraceptives.

As we move forward, these insights promise to revolutionize reproductive medicine, offering hope and new solutions to millions affected by infertility worldwide, and reaffirming the power of scientific inquiry to unlock the mysteries of life.

The full study was published in the journal Cell.


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