Bend propagation in the flagella of migrating human sperm, and Its modulation by viscosity

D.J. Smith, E. A. Gaffney, H. Gadelha, N. Kapur, J. C. Kirkman-Brown

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


A pre-requisite for sexual reproduction is successful unification of the male and female gametes; in externally-fertilising echinoderms the male gamete is brought into close proximity to the female gamete through chemotaxis, the associated signalling and flagellar beat changes being elegantly characterised in several species. In the human, sperm traverse a relatively high-viscosity mucus coating the tract surfaces, there being a tantalising possible role for chemotaxis. To understand human sperm migration and guidance, studies must therefore employ similar viscous in vitro environments. High frame rate digital imaging is used for the first time to characterise the flagellar movement of migrating sperm in low and high viscosities. While qualitative features have been reported previously, we show in precise spatial and temporal detail waveform evolution along the flagellum. In low viscosity the flagellum continuously moves out of the focal plane, compromising the measurement of true curvature, nonetheless the presence of torsion can be inferred. In high viscosities curvature can be accurately determined and we show how waves propagate at approximately constant speed. Progressing waves increase in curvature approximately linearly except for a sharper increase over a distance ̃20-27 μm from the head/midpiece junction. Curvature modulation, likely influenced by the outer dense fibres, creates the characteristic waveforms of

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)220-236
Number of pages17
JournalCell motility and the cytoskeleton
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2009


  • Chemotaxis
  • Flagellum
  • Human sperm
  • Migration
  • Viscosity

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