No-scalpel vasectomy, or NSV or keyhole vasectomy, is a surgical method of sterilization that involves puncturing the skin of the scrotum to access the vas deferens, a tube that carries spermatozoa, or sperm, from the testes to the penis. The surgeon performing the procedure blocks the flow of sperm through the vas deferens, sterilizing the patient. NSV is a less invasive procedure, as it does not use a scalpel to make a deep cut on sensitive scrotal tissue. Typically, urologists perform NSV with the purpose of rendering the patient sterile while not altering other functions of the testes, scrotum, and penis. Li Shunqiang developed the technique in China in 1974 as a less invasive method of vasectomy for male patients. Li’s development of NSV provided an alternative method to vasectomies that rely on making incisions into the scrotum with a blade. NSV gained wide use as a sterilization technique, providing a path for males to take greater responsibility for contraception and family planning.
In 1973, Ronald Ericsson developed the Ericsson method, which is a technique used to separate human male sperm cells by their genetic material. Ericsson, a physician and reproduction researcher, developed the method while conducting research on sperm isolation in Berlin, Germany, in the early 1970s. He found that the sperm cells that carry male-producing Y chromosomes move through liquid faster than the cells that carry female-producing X chromosomes. As a result of his findings, Ericsson suggested suspending a semen sample in a viscous liquid made from albumin protein, and collecting only sperm that quickly pass through the liquid. Shortly after Ericsson described his method, researchers demonstrated that it was effective for sex selection. However, later studies contested those results. Despite that, the Ericsson method is still utilized by couples in 2018 as a means of sex selection and was the first sperm separation technique used in combination with artificial insemination to enable people to select the sex of their children.
In the 1949 article “Revival of Spermatozoa after Dehydration and Vitrification at Low Temperatures,” researchers Christopher Polge, Audrey Ursula Smith, and Alan Sterling Parkes demonstrated that glycerol prevents cells from dying while being frozen. Polge and his colleagues discussed several procedures in which they had treated sperm cells from various species with glycerol, froze those cells, and then observed the physiological effects that freezing had on the treated sperm. The researchers concluded that glycerol safely preserves sperm samples from a variety of species. Polge, Smith, and Parkes’s 1949 article detailed one of the first successful uses of a chemical medium to preserve viable cells in a frozen state, a process that eventually enabled the first vertebrate embryo to be successfully conceived using frozen sperm.
Telomeres are structures at the ends of DNA strands that get longer in the DNA of sperm cells as males age. That phenomenon is different for most other types of cells, for which telomeres get shorter as organisms age. In 1992, scientists showed that telomere length (TL) in sperm increases with age in contrast to most cell of most other types. Telomeres are the protective caps at the end of DNA strands that preserve chromosomal integrity and contribute to DNA length and stability. In most cells, telomeres shorten with each cell division due to incomplete replication, though the enzyme telomerase functions in some cell lines that undergo repetitive divisions to replenish any lost length and to prevent degradation. Cells, and therefore organisms, with short telomeres are more susceptible to mutations and genetic diseases. While TL increases in a subset of sperm cells and longer telomeres may prevent early disintegration of DNA, it may also prevent natural mechanisms of apoptosis, or cell death, from occurring in abnormal sperm.
In 1952, researchers Christopher Polge and Lionel Edward Aston Rowson, who worked at the Animal Research Center in Cambridge, England, detailed several experiments on protocols for freezing bull semen for use in the artificial insemination of cows. Freezing sperm extends the life of a viable sperm sample and allows it to be used at later times, such as in artificial insemination. The researchers examined the effects of freezing conditions on bull sperm and how well they produce fertilized embryos once thawed. Polge and Rowson concluded that bull sperm can retain its fertility throughout the freezing process and that frozen bull sperm can yield pregnancy rates of up to seventy-nine percent. Polge and Rowson provided the first conclusive evidence that frozen mammalian sperm, once thawed, can produce viable pregnancies.
Twentieth-century researcher Ernest John Christopher Polge studied the reproductive processes of livestock and determined a method to successfully freeze, thaw, and utilize viable sperm cells to produce offspring in animals. In 1949, Polge identified glycerol as a cryoprotectant, or a medium that enables cells to freeze without damaging their cellular components or functions. Several years later, Polge used glycerol in a freezing process called vitrification, which enabled him to freeze poultry sperm, thaw that sperm, and use it to fertilize vertebrate embryos. He later adapted those methods to be applied to several other species including goats, cows, and pigs, which enabled farmers to fertilize livestock with sperm or embryos after long-term storage. Additionally, Polge's development of methods to freeze and store living samples has equipped reproductive health researchers and medical professionals with the abilities to mass collect and store human sperm.
In the 1960s in the United States Landrum B. Shettles developed the Shettles method, which is a procedure for couples to use prior to and during an intercourse to increase their chances of conceiving a fetus of their desired sex. Shettles, a physician, who specialized in obstetrics and gynecology, found a difference in the size and shape of male sperm cells that he correlated with the different sex chromosomes they carry. Based on that finding, Shettles developed procedures for couples to follow based on whether they desire a female or a male fetus and published them in the 1970 book, Your Baby’s Sex: Now You Can Choose. The Shettles method is based on the idea that male-producing sperm prefer alkaline conditions, whereas female-producing sperm prefer acidic conditions. The method provides couples with a procedure intended to enhance the favored environment for the sperm that will supposedly produce the desired sex, including female douches to be used before intercourse and how to time sexual intercourse within the female menstrual cycle. The book Your Baby’s Sex: Now You Can Choose, made the Shettles method a widely popular method of natural sex selection.
Spermism was one of two models of preformationism, a theory of embryo generation prevalent in the late seventeenth through the end of the eighteenth century. Spermist preformationism was the belief that offspring develop from a tiny fully-formed fetus contained within the head of a sperm cell. This model developed slightly later than the opposing ovist model because sperm cells were not seen under the microscope until about 1677. Spermism was never as dominant as ovist preformationism, but it had ardent followers whose work and writings greatly influenced the development of embryology in this time period. Spermism was and is now sometimes referred to as animalculism, a name taken from the term most naturalists at the time used to refer to microscopic organisms, or vermiculism, which comes from a specific term for sperm cells referring to their worm-like appearance. The most notable spermist philosophers and scientists were Nicolaas Hartsoeker, Anton Leeuwenhoek, and Wilhelm Gottfried Liebniz.
This embryology image is a pencil sketch by Nicolaas Hartsoeker, published as part of his 1694 French-language paper entitled Essai de Dioptrique, a semi-speculative work describing the sorts of new scientific observations that could be done using magnifying lenses. Dioptrique was published in Paris by the publishing house of Jean Anisson. The image depicts a curled up infant-like human, now referred to as a homunculus, inside the head of a sperm cell. This sketch is important to embryology because it is one of the most illustrative examples of preformationism, a theory of generation stating that each future member of any given species exists, fully formed though miniscule, within the gametic cells (sperm or eggs) of its parents. This theory was popular among naturalists in the eighteenth century.
Nicolaas Hartsoeker, a Dutch astronomer, optics manufacturer, and naturalist, was born 26 March 1656 in Gouda, Netherlands, and died 10 December 1725. His mother was Anna van der Mey and his father was Christiaan Hartsoeker, a prominent evangelical minister. His major contribution to embryology was his observations of human sperm cells, which he claimed to be the first to see under a microscope. His sketch of the homunculus, a tiny preformed human he believed to exist in the head of spermatazoa, is his lasting scientific legacy in the field of embryology. This sketch was only a minor part of his first publication, Essai de Dioptrique (1694), which dealt primarily with the use of optical lenses in science. In subsequent years the sketch became iconic of the theory of embryological development known now as preformationism. Hartsoeker himself was a vocal adherent of spermist preformationism and is often cited as the originator of the idea.