Simulating nature in sperm selection for assisted reproduction

Nat Rev Urol. 2022 Jan;19(1):16-36. doi: 10.1038/s41585-021-00530-9. Epub 2021 Nov 5.


Sperm selection in the female reproductive tract (FRT) is sophisticated. Only about 1,000 sperm out of millions in an ejaculate reach the fallopian tube and thus have a chance of fertilizing an oocyte. In assisted reproduction techniques, sperm are usually selected using their density or motility, characteristics that do not reflect their fertilization competence and, therefore, might result in failure to fertilize the oocyte. Although sperm processing in in vitro fertilization (IVF) and intrauterine insemination (IUI) bypasses many of the selection processes in the FRT, selection by the cumulus mass and the zona pellucida remain intact. By contrast, the direct injection of a sperm into an oocyte in intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI) bypasses all natural selection barriers and, therefore, increases the risk of transferring paternal defects such as fragmented DNA and genomic abnormalities in sperm to the resulting child. Research into surrogate markers of fertilization potential and into simulating the natural sperm selection processes has progressed. However, methods of sperm isolation - such as hyaluronic acid-based selection and microfluidic isolation based on sperm tactic responses - use only one or two parameters and are not comparable with the multistep sperm selection processes naturally occurring within the FRT. Fertilization-competent sperm require a panel of molecules, including zona pellucida-binding proteins and ion channel proteins, that enable them to progress through the FRT to achieve fertilization. The optimal artificial sperm selection method will, therefore, probably need to use a multiparameter tool that incorporates the molecular signature of sperm with high fertilization potential, and their responses to external cues, within a microfluidic system that can replicate the physiological processes of the FRT in vitro.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Male
  • Models, Biological
  • Reproductive Techniques, Assisted*
  • Sperm Retrieval*
  • Spermatozoa* / physiology