Sperm: the male sex cells

The mature sperm cell (see Figure 5.1) is a little swimming male sex cell. It consists of a head, body and tail. The head is covered by a cap and contains a nucleus of dense genetic material. It is attached to a region containing mitochondria, which supply the energy for the sperm's activity. The tail is able to contract and relax, producing a characteristic wave-like movement.

Figure 5.1 The structure of a sperm, the male sex cell.

Look at Figure 5.1. Can you explain how sperm move up the vagina, into the uterus and along the fallopian tubes?

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The sperm make up only about 5% of what a man ejaculates during the sex act. This represents about 100 to 400 million sperm each time, carried in a nutritious fluid (semen) which helps to keep them alive. Sperm are very, very small in size; in fact, a single sperm is the smallest cell in the male body.

From puberty onwards, new sperm develop in the testes (testicles) throughout a man's adult life. It takes about 72 days for one sperm to develop to maturity. Sperm production requires a temperature which is 3 to 5°C below body temperature -- which is why the testicles are outside the abdomen, where they can remain a little cooler. Exposure of the testicles to a higher temperature will inhibit sperm production and may lead to infertility.

Last modified: Tuesday, 7 October 2014, 9:02 AM