Of course, we know that lots of things can lead to male infertility, like being overweight, varicoceles, and temperatures that are a little too warm down there. But increasing evidence is beginning to show that there’s another thing to add to the list of factors making it hard to reproduce: your genes (and not jeans).
Researchers are starting to link epigenetics—how external and environmental factors can impact our DNA gene expression without changing the DNA itself—to semen quality, which could solve a piece of male infertility that is currently unexplained.
Okay, this part may be confusing, so we’ll break it down a bit. Think of epigenetics as that link between the age-old question of whether a particular trait is influenced by nature vs. nurture.
According to Live Science, “Epigenetics literally means ‘above’ or ‘on top of’ genetics. It refers to external modifications to DNA that turn genes ‘on’ or ‘off.’ These modifications do not change the DNA sequence, but instead, they affect how cells ‘read’ genes.”
Factors from your environment (think: diet, physical activity and stress) can affect your genome, which plays a role in turning genes on and off. Environmental factors can alter the patterns of methylation (or chemical reaction) in the genome—not just a man’s own past and present environment, but also that of his own parents or grandparents.
How epigenetics affects male fertility
Now that we know that different genes can be turned “on” and “off,” it stands to reason that this could affect the particular genes that play a role in fertility. Specifically, scientists have identified genes that help sperm find the egg and another that helps the sperm penetrate it; there’s also a gene that is important for embryo development. These are just three of potentially many genes impacting fertility.
Environmental factors that cause abnormal methylation in any of these genes could contribute to infertility. Whether a man is at risk of being infertile could be determined by examining sperm DNA for abnormal methylation at different gene sites important to fertility.
How do I know if I am infertile?
If you and your partner are having trouble conceiving, or if you just want some peace of mind about your fertility, you can pick up a SpermCheck kit, which is an over-the-counter test that lets you monitor your sperm count quickly and easily at home.
Determining the causes of fertility can be complex and science is just beginning to shed light on the epigenetics of reproductive infertility. The first step is to figure out whether your sperm counts are high enough for conception, which can be done in about 10 minutes with SpermCheck.
You might just find that your guys are doing just what they’re supposed to do.