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What Really Happens When Sperm Meets Egg

Scientists find that sparks literally fly when sperm meets egg

According to a new study out of Northwestern University, a lot more goes down than previously thought when sperm and egg come together. To use the researchers' own words, "sparks fly"—literally—soon after they collide, letting off bits of zinc that light up.

While scientists have actually known that bit of info since 2011, the Northwestern study has shown to the public, for the first time, images of this happening. As you might imagine, it's pretty cool.

In a written statement, Dr. Thomas V. O'Halloran, a professor of chemistry and molecular biosciences at Northwestern, explained how it all goes down: "The egg first has to stockpile zinc and then must release some of the zinc to successfully navigate maturation, fertilization and the start of embryogenesis," he explained. "But exactly how much zinc is involved in this remarkable process, and where is it in the cell? We needed data to better understand the molecular mechanisms at work as an egg becomes a new organism."

Researchers conducted the study on mice eggs using new imaging techniques to map the zinc atoms in each one. It turns out, each egg has some 8,000 compartments known as vesicles, and inside each one of those, you'll find 1 million zinc atoms. (Yes, really: a million!) Once the egg is fertilized, those zinc atoms are released all at once, thus "setting off sparks."

“Each egg has four or five of these periodic sparks," Dr. O'Halloran wrote in his statement. "It is beautiful to see, orchestrated much like a symphony. We knew zinc was released by the egg in huge amounts, but we had no idea how the egg did this.”

Curious as to what it looks like? You can watch it all go down in this video:

Here's the even better part, though: Researchers say that the new imaging techniques used during the study may have another added benefit, too. Experts will most likely be able to use them during the in-vitro fertilization process, as a way for doctors to better identify which eggs are more viable and likely to produce healthy embryos.

“If we can identify the best eggs, fewer embryos would need to be transferred during fertility treatments," added study co-author and ovarian biology expert Dr. Teresa K. Woodruff. "Our findings will help move us toward this goal."

Image via YouTube

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