Steerable, Motorized Cyborg Spermbots Take on Infertility

Tiny, magnetically-driven power suits for individual sperm cells turn them into steerable cyborg spermbots

2 min read
Steerable, Motorized Cyborg Spermbots Take on Infertility
Image: IFW Dresden

Traditionally, human procreation is all about accuracy through volume. Fire enough sperm at an egg (200-500 million is about average for a single, um, event), and if you’re lucky, a few of them (maybe a hundred or so) will eventually figure out the right thing to do, and one of those might end up leading to a successful fertilization. These are horrible odds, and it’s vaguely amazing that we manage to keep on making more of ourselves at all.

One futuristic approach (which has already been adopted by some of the more primitive insects) is to do away with the hundreds of millions of sperm, and rely on just one to get the job done. If you’re going to do that, your one sperm needs to be incredibly awesome, and thanks to science, it can be. Researchers from the Institute for Integrative Nanosciences at IFW Dresden in Germany have successfully tested tiny, magnetically-driven power suits for individual sperm that can turn them into steerable cyborg “spermbots” that can be remote controlled all the way to the egg.

To be slightly more serious about things, spermbots are intended to help deal with one of the primary causes of infertility: sperm that for whatever reason have poor mobility, but are otherwise perfectly healthy. Techniques like artificial insemination or in vitro fertilization can help, but they tend to be expensive and not very reliable, since there’s a chance for failure at many points during the multiple-step process. The fundamental problem that needs to be solved is this: how do you get one single healthy sperm to fertilize an egg? The IFW Dresden researchers came up with what has to be the simplest and most straightforward approach, which is to give the sperm and motor and just drive it there yourself:

The motors are metal-coated polymer microhelices that are sized such that they’ll fit over the tail of an individual sperm. A rotating magnetic field causes them to spin, propelling them (and whatever sperm they’re attached to) forward. Adjusting the orientation of the field can steer the spermbots in 3D, and all of this stuff can be done inside of an MRI machine, although the video (and testing so far) has been in the equivalent to a Petri dish. Once the (presumably now very very dizzy) sperm reaches the egg, the micromotor can even plow them into it, making the fertilization process as easy as possible.

There are still plenty of challenges here, but the researchers are confident that this is a useful step in the right direction. My suggestion would be to equip the robosperm with tiny little laser cannons just in case any other sperm get in its way. Pew pew!

[ Paper ] via [ ACS ]

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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