University of Newcastle researchers believe they might have figured out the reason why male fertility has plummeted over the past 50 years.

A new study has found environmental stressors, such as radio frequency energy and PFAS contamination, could affect men and their fertility. 

These sorts of stressors were originally not thought to be able to effect DNA, but could disrupt sperm through their RNA, and even prove lethal to embryos.

Dr Geoffry De Iuliis, Dr Shaun Roman, Professor Brett Nixon and lead author and PhD candidate Natalie Trigg made the discovery using a chemical called acrylamide as a stressor on sperm in the lab. 

The range of possible environmental stressors isn’t yet known, but could be wide and even common.

Dr De Iuliis says the revelations are a game-changer for how we think about conception. 

“These more subtle environmental exposures, while not directly disrupting the DNA, can modify these RNA species, which we now understand are really important in directing that early embryo development process, so it certainly does have implications for fertility,” Dr De Iuliis said. 

“Because we understand much of the mechanisms now, how the RNA species are affected, we might be able to manipulate this prior to IVF.”

“So we understand what a good RNA profile is, in a sperm, and we might be able to modify that, which if you follow the logic through, would mean improving the quality of embryo development.”

It’s now suspected this process could be a critical factor in explaining why sperm fertility has declined over the last half-century. 

Dr De Iuliis says understanding this phenomenon also opens the door to new approaches to treatment.

“The big take home message I think from this is that it puts more emphasis on men’s health immediately prior to conception,” Dr De Iuliis said.

“The next part of this work will be to looking at educating people on this, particularly men, and they may have to take more responsibility in terms of their personal health.”