Bend propagation in the flagella of migrating human sperm, and its modulation by viscosity

Cell Motil Cytoskeleton. 2009 Apr;66(4):220-36. doi: 10.1002/cm.20345.


A pre-requisite for sexual reproduction is successful unification of the male and female gametes; in externally-fertilising echinoderms the male gamete is brought into close proximity to the female gamete through chemotaxis, the associated signalling and flagellar beat changes being elegantly characterised in several species. In the human, sperm traverse a relatively high-viscosity mucus coating the tract surfaces, there being a tantalising possible role for chemotaxis. To understand human sperm migration and guidance, studies must therefore employ similar viscous in vitro environments. High frame rate digital imaging is used for the first time to characterise the flagellar movement of migrating sperm in low and high viscosities. While qualitative features have been reported previously, we show in precise spatial and temporal detail waveform evolution along the flagellum. In low viscosity the flagellum continuously moves out of the focal plane, compromising the measurement of true curvature, nonetheless the presence of torsion can be inferred. In high viscosities curvature can be accurately determined and we show how waves propagate at approximately constant speed. Progressing waves increase in curvature approximately linearly except for a sharper increase over a distance approximately 20-27 microm from the head/midpiece junction. Curvature modulation, likely influenced by the outer dense fibres, creates the characteristic waveforms of high viscosity swimming, with remarkably effective cell progression against greatly increased resistance, even in high viscosity liquids. Assessment of motility in physiological viscosities will be essential in future basic research, studies of chemotaxis and novel diagnostics.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Chemotaxis / physiology
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Rheology
  • Sperm Motility / physiology*
  • Sperm Tail / physiology*
  • Viscosity