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Sperm Tales

Tuesday, October 07, 2008 - 01:54 AM

Sperm drawing Sperm drawing (libby lynn/flickr)

In today’s podcast, a teaser for our hour-long Sperm show. If you think you learned all there is to know from that junior high school filmstrip, think again.


We give you two short pieces on sperm that hint at the new ideas and amazing stories we came across once we started following the trail of this wriggly little cell. First, in a twisted tale of twisted tails, fertility specialist Joanna Ellington, cofounder of ING Fertility, gives Robert a guided tour of all the sperm that are doomed to fail. Then Tim Birkhead, a biologist at the University of Sheffield, tells Jad and Robert how a dead wood mouse completely upended the idea that it’s “every sperm for himself.”



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Comments [12]

Marcia Turnquist from Portland, Oregon

I usually love radio lab and was listening intently today to Sperm Tales when the subject being interviewed suddenly said "Jesus Christ!" as in cursing, then proceeded to finish his sentence. REALLY? Is that necessary? As in, why wouldn't editors have cut this out? I'm Christian and definitely not puritan, but I found it offensive, enough that I immediately switched stations. It's just so totally unnecessary and so easily corrected. Are you that quick to insult the sensibilities of other faiths as well? I understand that it was the subject of the interview saying it, but by putting it on the air, it was Radiolab saying it because you have editorial control. I would think you guys would have a little more sensitivity to your listeners than that.

Would love a response. Thank you.

Jul. 19 2015 12:07 AM
NYC_Science_Lover from NYC

Pro life Rep. Todd Akin, who is running for Senate in Missouri, recently said:

“If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

Does this podcast support his statement in any way?!?! I am somewhat confused. It goes with the saying that he had just enough knowledge to be dangerous.

Curious what others think.

Aug. 20 2012 06:22 PM
Neil from Colorado


I just listened to your podcast on sperm tales. Very interesting stuff. If I were designing organisms I would link the fitness of the sperm to the fitness of the DNA in general. It seems like a perfect opportunity to weed out the unfit. I am constantly in awe of the beauty of natural selection. When you abstractly think of a good way to design an organism. I tend to find that it is often true. E.g. DNA should have a way to correct errors and then you look it up and find out that it does.

So, finally getting.on to my premise. If I were designing sperm it seems that a nice safety measure would be to put the genes that encode the proteins for sperm tails, for example, one on each chromosome. That would be a nice quick roll call, so to speak. Then I'd stick a few other flagellum genes directly adjacent to other biggies, perhaps hox genes or sonic hedgehog. Good swimmers would then tend to mean good DNA.

Is it possible that "spermatogenesis is a preview of ontogeny"?

Radiolab never ceases to stimulate the mind, although mine is probably way off base here. Keep up the great shows.


Apr. 24 2011 10:22 AM

Hi there!

So you know how kittens in the same litter can have all sorts of different fathers? And how there's that sugar lounge where the female human bodies can store sperm until everything's ready? Is it possible for sperm from more than one male to be hanging out in there and then when the gates are open for sperm from two different fathers to fertilize two different eggs? I mean, if a woman got sperm from two different men in a close proximity of time, could they both be in the sugar lounge, both race to the eggs and could there then be fraternal twins in humans who HAVE DIFFERENT FATHERS like the kittens?


Jan. 29 2011 04:57 PM

i love radiolab so much, but this show really bothered me. the bits and pieces were interesting, but using biological properties of sperm to explain human action is a gross over-simplification. while most of it was done jokingly in the program, it was worth noting that the societal influences are probably much stronger in terms of reproductive choices in humans. of course this is not the first time that biology has been used to describe the differences between male and female choices, and certainly not the most insulting, but i thought radiolab would do a better job of pointing this out.

Dec. 23 2008 01:56 PM


Dec. 04 2008 12:14 PM

I think you guys interviewed a friend of mine, Leisha, for this show...if she told you the story that she told me then this is going to be another fantastic episode.

The same night she told that she had been interviewed for Radiolab she blew my mind a second time when she told me about taking her pet fish in for her (the fish) to have surgery done. I had never considered whether there were even people who did emergency surgery on fish, but she has photos to prove it.

Oct. 12 2008 12:34 PM
Sarah Williams

I'm so glad the new season is starting!

arkonbey - one supposes that the majority all are abnormal in very different ways.

Oct. 08 2008 03:06 PM
Dave Kliman

It's funny how you're talking about this. just a month ago, or so, i was having a conversation with a botanist type, and he was explaining to me that many species of plants have sperm that are indistinguishable from animal sperm.

"with all the flagella etc?"


i hope you will be touching on that, as you probably will, since you guys seem to leave no stone unturned in your cool shows!


Oct. 08 2008 08:07 AM

Your shows rock, guys, I can't wait to hear the new one!
Your treatment of the topics is original and fascinating, your presentation fresh and entertaining.
I keep recommending your show to all my friends.
Thank you for an absolutely marvelous show!

Oct. 08 2008 01:27 AM

Ok. I'm not a statistician, so correct me if I'm wrong. Doesn't 'normal' usually imply a majority? If 86% of human sperm is not shaped like the 'classic' sperm, shouldn't that make the single-tailed, single-headed sperm abnormal?

Oct. 07 2008 01:43 PM

Sperm! Yay! I'm so glad we're talking about this. Sperm is so interesting, it's like a little life form, right? What I want to know is, how do those reptiles and rabbits make babies with just a man or just a woman? Could a sperm ever turn into a whole baby ever ever? ever? in the lab? Do all animal's sperm look the same? basically?

Oct. 07 2008 01:39 PM

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