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In Tight Spaces, Sperm Slither Rather Than Shimmy

Sperm usually swim in a 3D shimmy: a spiral wave travels down the whippy flagellum and rotates its head in a circle around its long axis. That “bulk swimming” is fine most of the time, but it isn’t a great option when a sperm cell gets close to a surface. That’s when they switch to “slither” mode.


David Sinton and his colleagues at the University of Toronto have found that when bull or human sperm are within one micron of a solid surface, they use a 2-dimensional swimming pattern reminiscent of a snake’s side-to-side motion. Instead of beating the flagellum in a spiral, sperm beat it in a flat sine wave.

Sperm don’t stay in slither mode for long–bull sperm slithered for less than a second at a time–but when human sperm slither they move 50% faster and straighter than they do swimming in 3D. The researchers think slither swimming may let sperm move through the narrow passageways of a cervix and the tight and twisty entrance to the Fallopian tube more easily.


[Nosrati, R. et al. 2015]

Video from Nosrati et al. 2015 via Nature Communications | CC BY 4.0

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Slithering Bull Sperm is either the name of my new band, or my go-to exclamation for moments of crisis. Or possibly both.