Creating a Sperm Atlas

Bonobo sperm

Grrr! That is not the sound of our Arctic wolf growling but the sound of frustration that could be heard in my office on any given day over the last nine years when I was on the hunt for an image. The image would be whatever new species’ sperm cell had wiggled its way under my microscope objective that day. I’d look for published images of normal sperm from any number of species, from a white-bellied tree pangolin to a Buergers’ tree kangaroo. Unfortunately, what I mostly found were dead ends.

I am often collecting sperm from species I have never collected from before and sometimes from species I didn’t even know existed. One of the methods I use to judge what condition the sperm is in is to look at what percentage is “normal,” meaning not having any defects that may cause problems with fertilization. For humans this is fairly easy; there are manuals and photos describing what healthy, normal sperm should look like. Unfortunately, no such manuals or photos existed for a large portion of the sperm I was trying to research.

Slow loris sperm

After many years of getting responses such as “no image found,” or “no items available,” I could take it no more. I discussed with my boss the idea of using our historical collection of fixed-sperm slides. I confirmed that there was no website or library book that dealt with a plethora of different species’ sperm. She agreed to my idea of making a database that would hold the images taken from these slides. But how would I have the time to undertake such a task?

The answer walked in my door in February 2009. Michelle was a quiet junior from High Tech High in Point Loma. She would be the first High Tech High intern to work in our lab. I was nervous about how I would perform as a mentor to a high school student. I had worked with many college summer interns and veterinary students but never with a 17 year old. I was also hesitant because I never know how any adult is going to react when I talk to them about sperm, much less a teenager! Much to my delight, Michelle was completely professional and listened intently to what I was saying. I wanted her to create and design a database containing photos and measurements of a variety of sperm cells. As I explained my story of frustration, she kindly nodded her head and said, “Okay.”

Tuatara sperm

Happily, she came back day after day, taking hundreds of photos of all different species’ sperm. She spent many hours editing the photos and removing all of the background to reveal the true shape of the sperm. Michelle even created small videos highlighting the different anatomical features of the sperm. When she finished her internship, I told her it was my dream to one day put her “Sperm Atlas” on the Internet as a resource for other reproduction researchers and to provide an educational tool highlighting cell diversity for everyone interested.

I know it may seem strange, but I truly get excited when a sample from a species I have never worked with comes through the door. I never know what I might see under the microscope. Will it have a round head, like a bat’s sperm, or more of a cork-screw head, like that of the Hawaiian crow? Will it have a long midpiece like a snake’s sperm or a tail that is slightly off to the side like a giant panda’s?

Copperhead snake sperm

When Michelle finished her internship, her hard work was continued by a second High Tech High student, Michael. He added even more photos to the sperm atlas as well as measurements of the sperm from our database. When he was done last year, I again told him I was determined to have this sperm atlas see daylight. It was not until I started carpooling with Talitha Matlin, our associate director of library services, that my dream began to become a reality. She mentioned that we could put the atlas on the library’s website as a reference tool. Could it be that simple? Could it be more perfect? A reference tool is exactly what I wanted it to be.

Before my very eyes she began loading the pages of the entire database onto the new Sperm Atlas Index website. A few days later, Talitha emailed me a link: I never thought I would get so excited to see pictures of sperm. Michelle and Michael are off at college now. I notified them of the great news. Michelle was able to share with her college roommates her internship project. I was able to share their project with the world.

I continue to make additions to the sperm atlas as new species come into our lab, and when I do, I shout it out to everyone who will listen. I am a one-woman public relations team for a sperm atlas, and I couldn’t be happier about it!

Nicole Ravida is a research coordinator for the Reproductive Physiology Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Freezing Cells: Out-of-the-Box Ideas.

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