A study by an international team of researchers led by UC Davis says that the loss of a protein that coats sperm may explain a significant proportion of infertility in men worldwide.
The research could open up new ways to screen and treat couples for infertility. A paper describing the work is published July 20 in the journal Science Translational Medicine
The protein DEFB126 acts as a "Klingon cloaking device," allowing sperm to swim through mucus and avoid the immune system in order to reach the egg, said Gary Cherr, a professor at the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory and Center for Health and Environment. Cherr is the senior author of the paper.
But the UC Davis researchers found that many men carry a defective gene for DEFB126. A survey of samples from the U.S., United Kingdom and China showed that as many as a quarter of men worldwide carry two copies of the defective gene - which may significantly affect their fertility.
Infertility affects 10 to 15 percent of the U.S. population, said John Gould, associate professor of urology at UC Davis, who was not involved in the research. About half of those cases involve problems with male fertility.
One of the mysteries of human fertility is that sperm quality and quantity seem to have little do with whether or not a man is fertile, said Ted Tollner, first author of the paper, who carried out the work as a postdoctoral scholar with Cherr. Tollner is now an adjunct assistant professor in the UC Davis Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology.