Researchers have uncovered exactly how a human egg captures an incoming sperm to begin the fertilisation process, in a new study published this week in the journal Science. The research identifies the sugar molecule that makes the outer coat of the egg ‘sticky’, which is vital for enabling the sperm and egg to bind together. Researchers across the world have been trying to understand what performs this task for over thirty years.
The scientists behind this study believe their work could help address some of the previously unexplained causes of human infertility and sub-fertility and be very useful for diagnosing this problem in couples who are unable to have children. It could also provide a new target for the development of natural contraceptive agents.
The international team, discovered that the sugar chain known as the sialyl-lewis-x sequence (SLeX) is highly abundant on the surface of the human egg. After experimenting with a range of synthesised sugars in the laboratory they went on to show that SLeX specifically binds sperm to an egg, and tested their findings using the outer coats of unfertilised ‘non-living’ human eggs.