The researchers---from the University of Connecticut, the University of Hawaii, and Hirosaki University---note that rabbit sperm share many similarities with human sperm, so their results suggest that the freeze-drying technique could be used to preserve sperm from humans and many other animal species.
Previously, only freeze-dried sperm from mice had been shown to support embryo development. Mouse sperm, however, are significantly different from sperm of most other mammals because they do not contribute a cellular organelle known as a centrosome to the fertilized oocyte. The question remains whether the centrosomes in rabbit sperm survive the freeze-drying or whether centrosomes are not essential for embryos of mammals to develop.
Freeze-drying immobilizes rabbit sperm, breaks plasma membranes, and causes fragmentation of the sperm tails. Nonetheless, the chromosomes remain intact in the "dead" sperm. Even after being stored at temperatures above freezing for more than two years, the treated sperm were as capable as fresh sperm at fertilizing rabbit oocytes.
In a paper scheduled for publication in Biology of Reproduction, the team headed by Xiangzhong Yang of the Center for Regenerative Biology at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, and Ryuzo Yanagimachi of the University of Hawaii Medical School, Honolulu, reports that one rabbit pup was born after 230 oocytes fertilized with freeze-dried sperm were transferred to 8 female rabbits. The full-term pup appeared normal but was still-born, a common outcome of single-birth pregnancies in rabbits.
The researchers believe that improvements in their procedure will someday enable freeze-dried sperm of mammalian species to be stored indefinitely at room temperatures.
Biology of Reproduction, published by the Society for the Study of Reproduction, is the top-rated peer-reviewed journal in the field of reproductive biology.