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Sperm can survive in low gravity which could help establish colonies on Mars, study suggests

Female astronauts could boldly go where no man has gone before if further research confirms sperm can survive space flight

Alex Matthews-King
Health Correspondent in Vienna
Sunday 23 June 2019 23:01 BST
Sending sperm into space could help establish colonies on Mars, though longer tests in zero gravity will be needed
Sending sperm into space could help establish colonies on Mars, though longer tests in zero gravity will be needed (NASA/AP)

Human colonies on Mars may be able to expand their gene pool with shipments of sperm from Earth as a new study suggests that exposure to low gravity environments does not damage the viability of frozen samples.

Sperm exposed to microgravity on the edge of Earth’s atmosphere was just as viable as sperm samples that were kept in ground conditions, a preliminary study found.

The samples were taken in a plane which went into repeated free-fall for eight seconds at a time to simulate the effects of space, to fill in the gaps on the effects of low gravity.

Researchers say the findings, although early, opens the possibility of “safely transporting male gametes to space and considering the possibility of creating a human sperm bank outside Earth.”

The results are being presented by Dr Montserrat Boada from Dexeus Women’s Health in Barcelona at the annual meeting of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology in Vienna.

Previous research has shown that the structure and function of human cells can be disrupted by being in a low gravity environment so she said it was important to test how reproductive cells would be affected.

“If the number of missions and spaceflights increases in the coming years, it is important to study the effects of long-term human exposure to space and probably consider thinking about the possibility of reproduction outside the Earth,” Dr Boada said.

The study was performed using a small aerobatic training aircraft which can provide short-duration exposure to hypogravity. The plane did 20 parabolic turns, giving eight seconds of microgravity for each one.

Ten sperm samples from healthy donors were analysed before and after. Scientists tested key measurements currently used in fertility testing – concentration, motility (the ability to move freely), vitality, morphology and DNA fragmentation.

Nasa’s chief administrator Jim Bridenstine has said the first person to walk on Mars is likely to be a woman. and the agency has set a goal of starting a colony on the planet by 2033.

However, it is aiming to establish a permanent base on the Moon by 2024.

Researchers now want to validate this preliminary research and are looking to use larger sperm samples and longer periods of microgravity.

“I think this is a really interesting idea," said fertility expert Professor Allan Pacey, of Sheffield University.

“It gives you the opportunity of having female astronauts that go to Mars, they take the sperm with them to populate a new world.

“They could boldly go where no man has gone before, and won’t need to go if just his sperm can go there.”

“My anxiety about what they’ve done is does this replicate weightlessness? I think it’s a stretch to say that it proves you can take sperm to Mars.”

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