Scientists at the University of Sheffield, UK, have discovered the protein responsible for facilitating fertilisation by drawing sperm into the egg.
The findings, published in Science Advances, pave the way to advances in infertility treatment, researchers say.
The international team of researchers named the protein after Greek deity Maia as a reference to motherhood. Maia, the word for midwife in modern Greek, was in Greek mythology the daughter of Atlas and Pleione the Oceanid, the oldest of the seven Pleiades and mother of Hermes by Zeus.
For the tests that led to the discovery, artificial eggs were created using synthetic microbeads. Each of the beads had a different protein segment, peptide, on it so that the sperm could bond with the bead.
When human sperm was incubated with the beads, the team found that it was one particular protein, MAIA, that was attached to the surface of the beads that had sperm bound to them.
The gene that creates the MAIA protein in the body was also identified and inserted into human cells, which then appeared to react with the sperm in the same way as would happen in natural fertilisation.
Professor Harry Moore, Lead Investigator of the study from the University of Sheffield’s School of Biosciences said of the potential implications of the study:
“The ingenious artificial fertilisation technique which enabled us to identify the MAIA protein will not only allow scientists to better understand the mechanisms of human fertility, but will pave the way for novel ways to treat infertility and revolutionize the design of future contraceptives.”
For more than half of those who struggle to conceive naturally, the cause remains unknown.
The discovery is hoped to also shed light on unexplained cases where fertilisation fails during IVF.