The mating game is far more complicated than X and Y

The race for life. Photo courtesy of iStock.

The race for life. Photo courtesy of iStock.
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Wednesday, 23 June 2010

University of Adelaide research reveals that a man's sperm does far more than fertilise an egg in the womb.

According to Professor Sarah Robertson from the University's Robinson Institute, semen has special qualities that contribute to a healthy pregnancy, including helping to prepare the female body for nurturing the fetus.

But the news isn't all good for men. It appears some sperm fails to 'communicate' with the female reproductive tract and while a man can appear to be fertile, his semen can be rejected by a woman if it's not compatible with her.

This is more likely to happen if a woman has not previously been exposed to his sperm over a period of time.

"We used to think that if a couple couldn't get pregnant, and the man's semen test was normal, the problem lay with the woman. But it appears this is not always the case," says Professor Robertson.

The fertility specialist is leading a national research project examining the actions of semen in the cervix and uterus after intercourse takes place.

"We have discovered that sperm doesn't just fertilise an egg. It actually contains signalling molecules that are responsible for activating immune changes in women so they can accept a foreign substance in the body - in this case sperm - leading to conception and a healthy pregnancy.

"It's rather like a two-way dance. The male provides information that increases the chances of conception and progression to pregnancy, but the female body has a quality control system which needs convincing that his sperm is compatible, and also judges whether the conditions are right for reproducing. That's where the dance can go wrong with some couples - if the male signals are not strong enough, or if the female system is too 'choosy'.

"If we can understand the cascade of events which come into play when the sperm enters the female reproductive tract, we may be able to mimic or assist this with new therapies, encouraging tolerance of her partner's semen, for those couples who are experiencing difficulties becoming pregnant."

Professor Robertson is seeking female participants for her ongoing research, which is funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council.

Women aged 18-40 who have had a tubal ligation but are sexually active and in a stable relationship are needed for the study. They cannot be using any other contraceptives and their partners must not have had a vasectomy. Participants will receive an honorarium to cover costs of participation.

Professor Robertson says this is the first study of its kind in Australia and will increase our knowledge of the importance of semen for reproductive health, hopefully leading to improved treatments for infertility and miscarriage.

For more information about the study, email or phone 0419 843 418.


Contact Details

Professor Sarah Robertson
Director, Robinson Research Institute
The University of Adelaide
Business: +61 8 8313 4094
Other: +61 8 8313 1435

Ms Helen Alvino
Clinical Research Coordinator
University of Adelaide
Business: +61 8 8222 5715
Mobile: +61 419 843 418

Mr David Ellis
Deputy Director, Media and Corporate Relations
External Relations
The University of Adelaide
Business: +61 8 8313 5414
Mobile: +61 (0)421 612 762