This Father’s Day (June 18) will be observed with a difference. So say the western media that have been running a series of articles to celebrate men as “elaborately engineered gamete vectors”. In fact, the focus seems to be more on the “elaborately engineered” gametes themselves: the sperm. And rightly, too, considering male sperm cells are specialised ones that are only formed after puberty. It is the ability to produce sperm that makes men — well, arguably — such an invaluable resource for the human species. As it is with the male in every other species.
It is curious that although sperm have been around since the beginning of time, we know so little about what is in them, and what makes them tick, er, swim. So scientists spend a lot of their waking hours trying to compare the structure and content of the proteins of sperm in various species, in order to understand their evolution and origin. For instance, the mutated DNA in the genes of the sperm of older fathers is believed to cause many genetic diseases. It is almost as if a man’s biological clock accelerates mutation in sperm cells in his early ’30s.
But perhaps there’s a more important reason to ponder the future of “man” this Father’s Day. Researchers recently successfully prompted embryonic stem cells (that could turn into any type of cell in the body) in mice to become sperm, which fertilised a mouse egg. Once this success is replicated in humans, it would be entirely possible to produce sperm without men. Not quite a man’s world, is it?