In a world of lip (and butt) fillers, scrotox and Valencia filters, we can modify just about everything about our own bodies. Now, a new IVF technique that can segregate male and female sperm might take this to even scarier levels, enabling couples to choose whether they have a boy or girl.
The study, published in Plos Biology on Tuesday, showed that sperm with the X chromosome (which gives rise to females) slowed down when a certain chemical was added while sperm with the (male) Y chromosome sped up.
Using this technique, the scientists found they could produce mice litters that were 90 per cent male. When the experiment was flipped, with the intention of creating a primarily female litter, the success rate was similar: 81 per cent female.
As The Independent reports, “the researchers, led by Masayuki Shimada from Hiroshima University, believe this technique is likely to be applicable to other mammals.”
“The process – which could be simple and cheap to carry out – does not damage the DNA of sperm and could greatly simplify sex selection for IVF or artificial insemination, which is used in livestock.”
The Japanese researchers also say they have already used this technique to selectively produce male and female cattle and pig offspring.
However, it is currently illegal in Australia to select the sex of your baby during IVF (which has led flocks of parents-to-be to the US), and – as lead researcher Dr Shimada says: “Use of this method in human reproductive technology is speculative at the moment, and [still] involves significant ethical issues.”
Dr Peter Ellis from the University of Kent School of Biosciences, who was not involved in the research, told The Independent the findings could be extremely significant.
“This study makes the startling claim that there are cell surface markers on X- and Y-bearing sperm cells that ‘label’ these and selectively affect their function,” he said.
“This type of marker has been sought for many years in many different species, but thus far without success.”
“If this study were to be replicated,” he continued, “and… if it holds true in species other than mice – then the implications could be colossal for both animal and human artificial insemination and assisted reproduction, but we are certainly not at that stage yet.”
The overall implication? There are a number of moral and scientific barriers likely to prevent (or delay), for quite some time, scientists from discovering if this chemical has the same effect on human sperm.
Not to mention how ethically fraught moving beyond that point would be, with Professor Robin Lovell-Badge from The Francis Crick Institute reportedly saying, “While the mice born after the sperm sorting apparently appeared normal, it would be essential to verify that there were no long-term effects of activating these receptors prior to fertilisation.”
“In other words, do not try this at home in attempts to bias the likelihood of having a boy or a girl.”