This story appears in the October 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine.
A remedy for infertility may be coming in bot form. Millions of couples struggle to have children, and the common causes of infertility mostly afflict women—poor egg quality, for instance, and conditions like endometriosis (a disorder of the uterus), as well as age. But roughly 20 percent of documented cases are classified as solely “male factor,” meaning the root of the problem stems from sperm that are low in number, abnormally formed, or sluggish swimmers.
Enter “spermbot,” a tiny, corkscrew-shaped motor designed to drive lethargic sperm to their target. Magnetically controlled, it works by first wrapping around the sperm’s tail, then propelling it toward—and, ideally, into—an egg. (This happens in the privacy of a medical clinic, not the bedroom.) Developed by a team of scientists in Germany, the motor could one day play a role in artificial insemination.
So far spermbot has been tested on bovine sperm and eggs and hasn’t yet achieved successful fertilization. “It’s a fascinating concept,” says Robin Fogle, a reproductive endocrinologist and researcher at the Atlanta Center for Reproductive Medicine, “but I admit I’m a skeptic.”
Study leader and spermbot engineer Oliver Schmidt acknowledges that the motor is somewhat inefficient and that more work needs to be done before it’s ready for human trials. Still, with further refining, he says, spermbot could make having a baby possible for couples diagnosed with infertility, particularly in situations “where other more established techniques have failed.”