The Birth Control of the Future Will Be for Everyone

Scientists at UC Berkeley could change the focus of the birth control debate, thanks to a discovery about sperm. And now that they know how it kicks into gear, they can make birth control for men. 

Scientists at UC Berkeley could change the focus of the birth control debate.

The Birth Control of the Future Will Be for Everyone


  • Scientists at UC Berkeley could change the focus of the birth control debate.

  • Sperm cells use a newly discovered mechanism to fertilize female eggs.

  • Drugs that target this mechanism could create unisex birth control.

    Birth control is now a political issue. While conservatives fight to deny women access to it, more women advocate for and educate about it. Yet, one thing that gets forgotten in the furor is the importance of men -- or, more accurately, their sperm.

    Spermatozoon - the technical name for active sperm - are the smallest cells in the human body. And even though they’re that small, they do a big job. They fertilize eggs inside a woman’s ovaries, beginning the creation of human life. Most methods of birth control focus on preventing sperm from doing that, whether by stopping fertilization or preventing implantation of the fertilized egg. Scientists designed birth control to do that because that was the earliest part of the reproductive process they could study. The trigger that causes a sperm to fertilize an egg remained a mystery. Until now.

    Researchers at UC Berkeley just identified that trigger. It’s called ABHD2 and it makes all the difference between active and inactive sperm. Most of the time sperm swim lazily, wiggling their tails from side to side like sleepy fish. But once a woman’s egg releases the hormone progesterone and indicates that it’s ready for fertilization, the sperm snap into action. Literally. They power toward that egg like a rocket, and the boost comes from the protein receptor ABHD2.  

    Thousands of those receptors are located on the sperm tail, and all of them need to be triggered by progesterone in order to boost the sperm. No boost, no fertilization. “If the receptor protein doesn’t recognize progesterone, [the sperm] would be infertile,” said Melissa Miller, lead author of the paper published in Science. “This gives us an understanding of another pathway that is involved in human sperm activity.

    As minute as this sounds, it’s incredibly important. “Sperm may be to blame in half of all cases of infertile couples,” writes Berkeley. “Little is known about the many molecular steps involved in the production of sperm and its interactions with the egg.” Given that doctors are unable to determine the cause of 80 percent of male infertility cases, this understanding of sperm behavior can hopefully shed more light on the process. Specifically, the team hopes to use ABHD2 in one of two ways:

  • identifying male fertility patterns
  • turning off its attraction to progesterone to inhibit female pregnancy
  • If ABHD2 can do both of those things, that would make it the very first unisex birth control -- and depoliticize it. “We have an actual target for unisex contraceptive development,” Miller says. “If you can stop progesterone from inducing a power stroke, sperm are not going to be able to reach or penetrate the oocyte.”

    Miller and her fellow researchers were able to identify the protein receptor and its actions by putting electrodes on a sperm’s tail. Those electrodes allowed the team to observe and record the sperm’s reactions to hormones. That helped them observe the calcium channel CatSper and notice that it was activated by progesterone. “Progesterone unlocks the channel gate,” Berkeley explains in a release, “letting electrically charged calcium atoms flood into the cell. This leads to a biochemical cascade that readies the sperm cell for its last-ditch effort to fertilize the oocyte.” ABHD2 binds to the progesterone and triggers that last-ditch effort.

    With all this knowledge of ABHD2, and given that cells in other parts of the body also release progesterone, Berkeley researcher Polina Lishko explained the team’s next steps this way:

    “Now that we know the players, the next step is to look in other tissues that express these proteins to see whether progesterone acts on them in a similar manner to affect pain threshold adjustment in pain sensing neurons, surfactant production in the lungs or the excessive smooth muscle contractions found in asthma. This may be a universal pathway in all cells.”

    It’s only a matter of time before researchers shed more light on male fertility and use it to create a unisex contraceptive. And once we have birth control that impacts sperm, the tone of the debate will change and we’ll come up with better options for everyone.



    ‘Designer baby’ book trilogy explores the moral dilemmas humans may soon create

    How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.

    Surprising Science
    • A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
    • It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
    • While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
    Keep reading Show less

    Octopus-like creatures inhabit Jupiter’s moon, claims space scientist

    A leading British space scientist thinks there is life under the ice sheets of Europa.

    Jupiter's moon Europa has a huge ocean beneath its sheets of ice.

    Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute
    Surprising Science
    • A British scientist named Professor Monica Grady recently came out in support of extraterrestrial life on Europa.
    • Europa, the sixth largest moon in the solar system, may have favorable conditions for life under its miles of ice.
    • The moon is one of Jupiter's 79.
    Keep reading Show less

    Lair of giant predator worms from 20 million years ago found

    Scientists discover burrows of giant predator worms that lived on the seafloor 20 million years ago.

    Bobbit worm (Eunice aphroditois).

    Credit: Jenny – Flickr
    Surprising Science
    • Scientists in Taiwan find the lair of giant predator worms that inhabited the seafloor 20 million years ago.
    • The worm is possibly related to the modern bobbit worm (Eunice aphroditois).
    • The creatures can reach several meters in length and famously ambush their pray.
    Keep reading Show less

    FOSTA-SESTA: Have controversial sex trafficking acts done more harm than good?

    The idea behind the law was simple: make it more difficult for online sex traffickers to find victims.

    Has FOSTA-SESTA really lived up to it's promise of protecting sex trafficking victims - or has it made them easier to target?

    Credit: troyanphoto on Adobe Stock
    Politics & Current Affairs
    • SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) and FOSTA (Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) started as two separate bills that were both created with a singular goal: curb online sex trafficking. They were signed into law by former President Trump in 2018.
    • The implementation of this law in America has left an international impact, as websites attempt to protect themselves from liability by closing down the sections of their sites that sex workers use to arrange safe meetings with clientele.
    • While supporters of this bill have framed FOSTA-SESTA as a vital tool that could prevent sex trafficking and allow sex trafficking survivors to sue those websites for facilitating their victimization, many other people are strictly against the bill and hope it will be reversed.
    Keep reading Show less
    Videos

    What is the ‘self’? The 3 layers of your identity.

    Answering the question of who you are is not an easy task. Let's unpack what culture, philosophy, and neuroscience have to say.

    Scroll down to load more…
    Quantcast