Fertility study has implications for humans | Livestock

Sire infertility is a problem for the reproductive performance of swine, despite the greater attention that has long been given to sows.

Twenty-five percent of the boar herd has conception rates of less than 80 percent. That’s considered unacceptable by industry, according to Karl Kerns, an assistant professor of animal science at Iowa State University.

“By adding even one more pig to a litter, we could increase production by an estimated $120 million annually,” he said. “To improve that we need to learn more about what influences the capacity of sperm to fertilize. That means developing better tools for researching sperm health and making it easier for the industry to use the knowledge we already have.”

Kerns is leading a new five-year research project with funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture. He’s taking a molecular approach to analyze the biochemical makeup of sperm, especially the proteins, fats and energy sources that signal which sperm are more – or less – fertile. While the project focuses on swine it has implications for other species, such as humans and cattle.

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He uses an image-based flow cytometer to study sire fertility. He likens it to a high-throughput microscope. The cytometer allows imaging of as many as 10,000 sperm cells and as many as nine biomarkers within each cell.

Kerns then uses computer-based artificial intelligence to link the resulting vast data set of images with reproductive outcomes. The project has multiple goals, including reducing barriers in the swine industry to use the best available information on swine genetics and reproductive capacity.

One aspect of the research is to investigate the fats, protein and energy sources of fertile spermatozoa to see if supplements can increase sperm-cell survival after insemination and boost fertility.

“Male fertility is one part of the equation that’s often overlooked, but it’s critically important,” Kerns said. “But this isn’t just about swine. We’re taking a ‘One Health’ approach that’s likely to be relevant to other mammals. For instance, infertility is a costly issue for the beef industry, representing a $4.7-billion annual loss for U.S. cattle producers.”

The research also could lead to better fertility diagnostics for humans, he said.

“One out of eight couples struggle with infertility,” he said. “Men contribute as much as two-thirds of the problem directly and indirectly. Human-infertility treatments are expensive and have poor success rates. They also can put undue stress on the emotional health of the couple when not diagnosed correctly. Having better diagnostics to identify male-fertility issues and better ways to address them could reduce the stigma we now often unduly place on women and greatly boost reproductive success for couples.”