New study finds the egg may actually 'choose' the sperm

Here's the first evidence to challenge the "fastest sperm" narrative.

New study finds the egg may actually 'choose' the sperm

If you've attended high school, you can probably remember filling in a Punnett square during a biology class. It was the simple diagram that could not only make you feel like a knowledgeable budding geneticist, but could also help you figure out the probability of your kids having blue eyes in the case the cute classmate you had a crush on agreed to live with you happily ever after.

Credit: Flickr / yourgenome

The Punnett Square is a visual representation of Gregor Mendel's laws of inheritance. They are three and they posit that 1) alternative forms of a gene (allele pairs) separate randomly during the production of an egg or sperm (gametes), so that each gamete only carries one form of the gene; 2) each pair of alleles segregates independently of other pairs during the formation of an egg or sperm; 3) the genotype of an individual is made of many alleles (after a random pairing of an egg and a sperm, each of which carries a random form of the gene), and the phenotype of an individual (the visible expression of the genotype) is determined by the dominant alleles and the environment.

What underlies all of Mendel's laws is the idea of randomness. Scientists believe that it is up to chance which sperm will fertilize an egg and which combinations of alleles the offspring would have. That is, of course, after the sperm has proven itself to be the strongest and most enduring swimmer of them all. But the point is, the egg has no say in this. It sits passively waiting to be fertilized.

This whole narrative, including Mendel's laws, may be about to change. Dr. Joseph H. Nadeau, principal scientist at the Pacific Northwest Research Institute, has found evidence that suggests eggs and sperm don't always combine randomly, but in fact the egg may choose which sperm to fertilize it. The findings have been published in Genetics.


Nadeau was tipped off by two experiments from his own lab which were supposed to produce specific predictable ratios of gene combinations in offspring (based on Mendel's laws), but they didn't. It actually turned out that certain pairings of genes are much more likely than others in the cases when the mother carries a particular gene.

Nadeau was exploring how the interactions between two genes (Apobec1 and Dnd1) affected the risks for testicular cancer in mice. He noticed a profound difference between the offspring of the mice in the cases when the mother carried a normal and mutated version of Dnd1 vs. when the father carried a normal and mutated version of the gene, and then the mice were bred with a partner who had a normal and mutated version of Apobec1. (Now is the time to bust out those Punnett chart skills.)

When the mother carried the two versions of Dnd1, the distribution of the genes in the offspring followed Mendel's laws but when the father did, the math went entirely off. Instead of finding the expected 75 percent of offspring to carry at least one of the mutant genes, they found that only 27 percent of the offspring did.

After eliminating other possible explanations for the unlikely ratios, like embryonic death, Nadeau concluded that fertilization must not have been random and there must be a mechanism that allows the egg to choose the sperm with the normal instead of the mutated gene. He calls it genetically biased fertilization.

“It's the gamete equivalent of choosing a partner," Nadeau says for Quanta Magazine. "We've been blinded by our preconceptions. It's a different way to think about fertilization with very different implications about the process of fertilization."

The mechanism of how the egg may decide which sperm to let fertilize it is still unclear. There probably are secreted and cell-surface factors in female reproductive organs that could control access of sperm to eggs based on their genetic content. Nevertheless these findings shed a new light on the female and her reproductive system, which as it turns out, has a much more active role in choosing a partner or a sperm cell and influencing the genetic composition of her offspring.

For more on the topic check out Quanta Magazine.

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source:

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source:

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source:

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

Your genetics influence how resilient you are to the cold

What makes some people more likely to shiver than others?

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Eating veggies is good for you. Now we can stop debating how much we should eat.

Credit: Pixabay
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