Sperm motility describes the ability of sperm to move properly through the female reproductive tract (internal fertilization) or through water (external fertilization) to reach the egg. Sperm motility can also be thought of as the quality, which is a factor in successful conception; sperm that do not "swim" properly will not reach the egg in order to fertilize it. Sperm motility in mammals also facilitates the passage of the sperm through the cumulus oophorus (a layer of cells) and the zona pellucida (a layer of extracellular matrix), which surround the mammalian oocyte.
In the wood mouse Apodemus sylvaticus, sperms aggregate in 'trains' that are better able to fertilize eggs because they are more capable of navigating the viscous environment of the female reproductive tract. The trains move in a sinusoidal motion.
Sperm motility is also affected by certain factors released by eggs.
Sperm movement is activated by changes in intracellular ion concentration. The changes in ion concentration that provoke motility are different among species. In marine invertebrates and sea urchins, the rise in pH to about 7.2-7.6 activates ATPase which leads to a decrease in intracellular potassium, and thus induces membrane hyperpolarization. As a result, sperm movement is activated. The change in cell volume which alters intracellular ion concentration can also contribute to the activation of sperm motility. In some mammals, sperm motility is activated by increase in pH, calcium ion and cAMP, yet it is suppressed by low pH in the epididymis.
The tail of the sperm - the flagellum - confers motility upon the sperm, and has three principal components:
- a central skeleton constructed of 11 microtubules collectively termed the axoneme and similar to the equivalent structure found in cilia
- a thin cell membrane covering the axoneme
- mitochondria arranged spirally around it the axoneme,
Back and forth movement of the tail results from a rhythmical longitudinal sliding motion between the anterior and posterior tubules that make up the axoneme. The energy for this process is supplied by ATP produced by mitochondria. The velocity of a sperm in fluid medium is usually 1-4 mm/min. This allows the sperm to move towards an ovum in order to fertilize it.
In mammals, spermatozoa mature functionally through a process which is known as capacitation. When spermatozoa reach the isthmic oviduct, their motility has been reported to be reduced as they attach to epithelium. Near the time of ovulation, hyperactivation occurs. During this process, the flagella move with high curvature and long wavelength. Hyperactivation is initiated by extracellular calcium; however, the factors that regulate calcium level is unknown.
Without technological intervention, a non-motile or abnormally-motile sperm is not going to fertilize. Therefore, the fraction of a sperm population that is motile is widely used as a measure of semen quality . Insufficient sperm motility is a common cause of subfertility or infertility. Several measures are available to improve sperm quality.
Classifications of motility
- Straight moving,
- Zig-zag moving,
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