A race to colonize space is now underway, with both the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, and the American resident entrepreneur Elon Musk having plans to launch people towards the red planet in the near future. Meanwhile Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has, arguably, set himself the more realistic goal of colonizing the moon, for the purposes of shifting heavy industry away from earth, liberating the planet for residential use. Russia, Japan, and China also have moon base ambitions for the 2030s.
As ever, such plans raise numerous questions relating to how space will affect the biology of people. With this background in mind, researchers and engineers from Dexeus Women’s Health in Barcelona, Polytechnic University of Barcelona and The Aeroclub Barcelona-Sabadell of Spain have raised “the possibility of safely transporting male gametes to space and considering the possibility of creating a human sperm bank outside Earth.”
Dr Montserrat Boada reported at the 35th Annual Meeting of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology, in Vienna, Austria, that there was a lack of difference in a range of sperm characteristics observed in frozen sperm samples exposed to microgravity and those maintained in ground conditions. The sperm analysis comprised a full range of measurements currently performed for fertility testing – concentration, motility, vitality, morphology and DNA fragmentation – and results indicated no difference in any of the characteristics of the microgravity exposed samples and the control group samples.
The study was performed using a small aerobatic training aircraft (CAP10), which can provide short-duration hypogravity exposure. The plane executed a series of 20 parabolic manoeuvres, providing 8 seconds of microgravity for each parabola. Overall, ten sperm samples obtained from ten healthy donors were analysed after exposure to the different microgravities found in space and ground gravity.
“Some studies suggest a significant decrease in the motility of human fresh sperm samples.” … “but nothing has been reported on the possible effects of gravitational differences on frozen human gametes, in which state they would be transported from Earth to space.”
“If the number of space missions increases in the coming years, and are of longer duration, it is important to study the effects of long-term human exposure to space in order to face them. It’s not unreasonable to start thinking about the possibility of reproduction beyond the Earth.”
“Radiation impairs the quality and viability of human sperm, and these effects are expected to be greater on fresh sperm than on frozen samples, which are cryopreserved in special cryostraws and transported in cryotanks. So our first step was to investigate gravity conditions and frozen sperm samples. Our best option will be to perform the experiment using real spaceflight, but access is very limited.” – Dr. Montserrat Boada, Dexeus Women’s Health, Barcelona