Paternal infertility is a problem for the reproductive performance of pigs, despite the increased attention that has long been given to the female side of the equation.
“We know that 25% of the bear herd has less than 80% conception rates, which is considered unacceptable by the industry,” said Karl Kerns, assistant professor of animal science at Iowa State University and a 2014 alum of the same department. “By adding even one more pig to a litter, we can increase production by an estimated $120 million annually. To improve this, we need to learn more about what affects the ability of sperm to fertilize. This means develop better tools to investigate sperm health – and make it easier for the industry to use the knowledge we already have.”
Kerns is leading a new five-year grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture to support research on boar sperm capacitation—the biological pathways that support spermatozoa’s ability to fertilize. The award is one of 14 funded nationwide under NIFA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative – Animal Production Programme. This project, and two other recent grants to collaborate with colleagues at the University of Missouri and the USDA Agricultural Research Service, total $1.7 million in federal support for Kerns’ work studying male fertility.
Kerns takes a molecular approach to analyze the biochemical composition of sperm, especially the proteins, fats and energy sources that indicate which sperms are more – or less – fertile. The AFRI project focuses on pigs, but has implications for other species, including cattle and humans.
To study fathers’ fertility, he uses a state-of-the-art equipment found in few andrology labs around the world: an image-based flow cytometer, “basically a high-throughput microscope,” he explains. In a matter of 30-60 seconds, the cytometer allows imaging of up to 10,000 sperm cells and up to nine biomarkers within each cell. Kerns then uses computer-based artificial intelligence to link the resulting large dataset of images with reproductive outcomes. This kind of equipment and approach has become more common in human health research, such as the cancer field, but it has not been used to study livestock fertility, according to Kerns.
The project has multiple goals, including reducing barriers in the pig industry to use the best available information on pig genetics and reproductive performance.
“In the past, uptake of relevant technology has been slowed by the high cost of laboratory equipment, the need for highly skilled labor and increased analysis time, none of which are conducive to production,” says Kerns. “This new project will use analytical software resources aimed at providing accessible, economical methods and equipment that can more quickly translate findings from the lab bench to barns.”
Another aspect of the research is to examine the lipid (or fats), protein and energy sources of fertile spermatozoa to see if supplements can increase sperm cell survival after insemination and promote fertility.
His previous foundational work has already had an impact on the livestock industry. While doing graduate and postdoctoral research at the University of Missouri, he and his team found a link between zinc ions and the fertilizing ability of bear spermatozoa. That information, now called the “mammalian sperm zinc signature,” has improved pig and bull fertility diagnostics. Further research into the influence of zinc on sperm health is an ongoing area of focus.
“Male fertility is one part of the fertility equation that is often overlooked, but it is critically important,” says Kerns. “However, it’s not just about pigs. We take a ‘One Health’ approach that is likely to be relevant to other mammals, including cattle and humans. For example, infertility is an expensive issue for the beef industry, which is a $4 represents .7 billion annual loss to US cattle producers.”
“This could eventually also lead to better fertility diagnostics for people,” he says. “One in eight couples struggle with infertility. We know that men directly and indirectly contribute to two-thirds of the problem. Current human infertility treatments are not only very expensive, with low success rates, but can also place unnecessary stress on the emotional health of the couple when misdiagnosed.Having better diagnostics to identify male fertility issues, and better ways to address them, can reduce the stigma we now often unnecessarily place on women and greatly increase reproductive success for couples .”
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