The term sperm is derived from the Greek word (σπέρμα) ”sperma” (meaning “seed”) and refers to the male reproductive cells. In the types of sexual reproduction known as anisogamy and oogamy, there is a marked difference in the size of the gametes with the smaller one being termed the “male” or sperm cell.
The human sperm cell is haploid, so that its 23 chromosomes can join the 23 chromosomes of the female egg to form a diploid cell. A uniflagellar sperm cell that is motile is referred to as a spermatozoon, whereas a non-motile sperm cell is referred to as a spermatium. Sperm cells cannot divide and have a limited life span, but after fusion with egg cells during fertilization, a totipotent zygote is formed with the potential to develop into a new organism. Sperm cells contribute half of the genetic information to the diploid offspring. In mammals, the sex of the offspring is determined by the sperm cell: a spermatozoon bearing a Y chromosome will lead to a male (XY) offspring, while one bearing an X chromosome will lead to a female (XX) offspring (the ovum always provides an X chromosome).
The human sperm cell is the reproductive cell in males and will only survive in warm environments, once leaving the body the sperm’s survival is reduced and may cause the cell to die, decreasing the sperm quality. Sperm cells come in two types; “male” and “female”. Sperm cells that give rise to female (XX) offspring after fertilization differ in that they carry an X chromosome, while sperm cells that give rise to male (XY) offspring carry a Y chromosome.
In male humans, sperm cells consists of a head 5 µm by 3 µm and a tail 50 µm long. The tail flagellates, which propels the sperm cell (at about 1–3 mm/minute in humans) by whipping in an elliptical cone. Semen has an alkaline nature, and they do not reach full motility (hypermotility) until they reach the vagina where the alkaline pH is neutralized by acidic vaginal fluids. This gradual process takes 20–30 minutes. In this time, fibrinogen from the seminal vesicles forms a clot, securing and protecting the sperm. Just as they become hypermotile, fibrinolysin from the prostate dissolves the clot, allowing the sperm to progress optimally.
The spermatozoon is characterized by a minimum of cytoplasm and the most densely packed DNA known in eukaryotes. Compared to mitotic chromosomes in somatic cells, sperm DNA is at least sixfold more highly condensed.
The spermatozoon contributes with DNA/chromatin, a centriole and perhaps also an oocyte-activating factor (OAF). It may also contribute with paternal Messenger RNA (mRNA), also contributing to embryonic development.
The sperm cell consists of a head, a midpiece and a tail. The head contains the nucleus with densely coiled chromatin fibres, surrounded anteriorly by an acrosome, which contains enzymes used for penetrating the female egg. The midpiece has a central filamentous core with many mitochondria spiralled around it, used for ATP production for the journey through the female cervix, uterus and uterine tubes. The tail or “flagellum” executes the lashing movements that propel the spermatocyte.
The spermatozoa of animals are produced through spermatogenesis inside the male gonads (testicles) via meiotic division. They are carried out of the male body in a fluid known as semen. Mammalian sperm cells can live for up to 3 days inside the female reproductive system.
Sperm were first observed in 1677 by Antonie van Leeuwenhoek using a microscope, he described them as being animalcules (little animals), probably due to his belief in preformationism, which though that each sperm contained a fully formed but small human.