A black-and-white video shared on social media showed a microscopic corkscrew-shaped helix as it appeared to consume a sperm, transport it, and ultimately lead the little swimmer into the wall of an immature egg, or oocyte.
The video was released widely after being shared with Twitter by the Weird Science account on September 21, 2021, in which the video claimed that the video showed a nanobot as it “takes a lazy sperm by the tail and inseminates an egg with it.” The video was also posted on Reddit shortly thereafter, where it garnered 125,000 upvotes.
A glance at the scientific literature revealed that yes, the video in question is real. But there are a few caveats to note, namely that this is the second round of attention it is garnering on social media.
The assisted swimmer video first made headlines when it was first publication in a 2016 issue of the peer-reviewed journal Nano letters, a publication of the American Chemical Society. The so-called “spermbot” was developed by researchers at the German Institute for Integrative Nanosciences with the aim of finding new approaches to combat infertility.
Let’s be clear: the technology is a prototype that has been recorded propelling immobile sperm into an oocyte in a petri dish, or in vitro, and not into a living organism. From Latin for “in the glass”, in vitro studies are carried out using cells and biological molecules outside a living organism. (In vivo, on the other hand, translates to “in the living” and refers to work within an organism.)
The main cause of infertility is poor sperm motility or sperm that are otherwise healthy but cannot swim. Cue the spermbot, designed as an alternative to other infertility treatments such as artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization. The nanobot consists of a metal helix large enough to wrap around the sperm and uses a rotating magnetic field to hook onto the tail of the sperm to “push” it into an egg for potential fertilization.
Micromotors like the spermbot take inspiration from their natural counterparts and mimic natural processes with the help of human assistance, such as magnetic fields. But despite their promise, the accuracy of administration and biocompatibility, the compatibility of non-organic materials with living tissue, remain challenges in the human body.
The hybrid micromotor uses a sperm as the “on-board power supply” and coupled to the microtube which was remotely controlled by an external magnetic field, the sperm tail still provides the propulsion for “cellular cargo delivery”. In short, these “personalized micro helices” serve as motors that can transport sperm with movement impairments.
“Our results indicate that metal-coated polymer microhelices are suitable for this task due to powerful, controllable, and non-harmful 3D motion behavior,” the study authors wrote. “We are able to capture, transport and release live, immobile sperm into fluid channels that mimic physiological conditions.”
The successful capture, as seen in the video, shows that the tail is confined inside the inner part of the micro-helix, the head protrudes at the front end and is loosely tied with a ring that “acts like a noose to prevent the head of the sperm from sliding back. through the propeller.
Limitations of the technology arose when comparing different sperm and ova, each of which had to be transferred from the culture dishes to another platform for testing, resulting in delays and temperature fluctuations, both of which could influence success rates. Still, the authors say their work serves to demonstrate a new approach to artificial reproduction in the future.
“Unfortunately, like many promising applications in biomedical engineering, it appears that there is still a long road between artificially motorized sperm delivery and actual fertilization of oocytes,” the researchers wrote, adding that success of this new approach lies in its potential.
Petri dish testing was a “promising start” that could one day lead to treatment for male infertility, but needed more research before it could be applied to humans, the researchers concluded.
“Despite the fact that there are still challenges for successful fertilization with artificially motorized sperm, we believe that the potential of this new approach to assisted reproduction can already be put into perspective with the present work,” wrote the authors of the study. .
Snopes reached out to researchers to find out more about the current state of the technology and whether it could be suitable for human testing, but did not have a response in time for the publication. We will update the article accordingly.
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