Morphological study of boar sperm during their passage through the female genital tract
Stringent selection mechanisms, in both internal and external fertilisation systems, reject all but a significant minority of the spermatozoa released at ejaculation. Sperm competition theory provides circumstantial evidence that the selection process involves mechanisms by which the quality of the fertilising spermatozoon is controlled, thereby ensuring that females and their offspring receive high quality genetic material. In this review we examine some of these selection processes to see whether they could be exploited for the improvement of laboratory tests of sperm quality. Such tests are not only required for clinical and agricultural purposes, but are increasingly needed in fields such as reproductive and environmental toxicology where the species requirement is much broader. Despite many years of research, sperm quality assessment methods continue to provide imprecise data about fertility; here we suggest that this may be a consequence of using tests that focus on the spermatozoa that would normally be unable to fertilise under natural conditions. To achieve fertilisation a spermatozoon must be capable of responding appropriately to external signalling stimuli; those involving protein kinase-regulated flagellar function seem especially influential in governing effects ranging from non-Mendelian inheritance in mammals to sperm chemotaxis in sea urchins. Examination of the elicited responses reveals considerable heterogeneity in all species. Here we propose that this level of heterogeneity is meaningful both in terms of understanding how spermatozoa from some individuals possess fertility advantages over spermatozoa from their rivals in sperm competition, and in that the heterogeneity should be exploitable in the development of more accurate laboratory tests.