Scientists discover ‘maternity’ protein that helps sperm fertilize eggs and may be key to infertility

Forced to swim upstream through a barrage of natural barriers, sperm must engage in a friendless struggle to beat the competition and fertilize an egg. But now scientists have discovered that some receive an unexpected helping hand at the end of their arduous journey.

The “maternity” protein on the outside of the egg effectively grabs the winner and pulls it into the cytoplasm, researchers at the University of Sheffield, UK, have found.

It’s a part of the fertilization process that has never been seen before, and scientists think it may be key to why some people have trouble conceiving or why certain sperm are rejected. The protein was named Maia after the Greek goddess of motherhood.

Professor Allan Pacey, co-author of the study, said: “This discovery of the Maia protein is a major advance in our understanding of the process of human fertilization.”

Only a few hundred sperm ever get close to an egg, although men release between 40 and 150 million during ejaculation.

Although the uterus helps sperm move toward the fallopian tube that contains the egg, the female body throws up a variety of immune obstacles along the way that only the strongest and healthiest swimmers can overcome.

Even when sperm reach their destination, they can still have trouble triggering fertilization for reasons scientists don’t fully understand.

To find out which proteins help or hinder, scientists made artificial eggs out of beads and attached different pieces of protein – called peptides – to their surface to see if binding was triggered. After introducing sperm into the “eggs” and incubating them, the researchers found that only those with portions of the Maia protein bonded successfully.

To check if the protein was definitely responsible, the team inserted the gene that makes Maia into cultured human cells and found that they became susceptible to sperm in the same way as eggs.

Professor Harry Moore, lead researcher on the study, said: “The sophisticated artificial insemination technique that enabled us to identify the Maia protein will not only allow scientists to better understand the mechanisms of human fertility, but will Paving the way for new ways to treat infertility and revolutionizing the design of future contraceptives.

“Infertility is unexplained in more than half of those who have trouble conceiving naturally.”

Scientists now want to investigate whether sperm from different individuals bind differently to the Maia protein. They hope the results can help confirm the theory that some sperm may not be compatible with some eggs, which could explain many cases of infertility.

The results are published in the journal scientific advances. Scientists discover ‘maternity’ protein that helps sperm fertilize eggs and may be key to infertility

Fry Electronics Team

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