Researchers first to determine entire genetic sequence of individual human sperm

The entire genomes of 91 human sperm from one man have been sequenced by Stanford University researchers. The results provide a fascinating glimpse into naturally occurring genetic variation in one individual, and are the first to report the whole-genome sequence of a human gamete - the only cells that become a child and through which parents pass on physical traits.

"This represents the culmination of nearly a decade of work in my lab," said Stephen Quake, PhD, the Lee Otterson Professor in the School of Engineering and professor of bioengineering and of applied physics. "We now have devices that will allow us to routinely amplify and sequence to a high degree of accuracy the entire genomes of single cells, which has far-ranging implications for the study of cancer, infertility and many other disorders."

Quake is the senior author of the research, published July 20 in Cell. Graduate student Jianbin Wang and former graduate student H. Christina Fan, PhD, now a senior scientist at ImmuMetrix, share first authorship of the paper.

Sequencing sperm cells is particularly interesting because of a natural process called recombination that ensures that a baby is a blend of DNA from all four of his or her grandparents. Until now, scientists had to rely on genetic studies of populations to estimate how frequently recombination had occurred in individual sperm and egg cells, and how much genetic mixing that entailed.

"Single-sperm sequencing will allow us to chart and understand how recombination differs between individuals at the finest scales. This is an important proof of principle that will allow us to study both fundamental dynamics of recombination in humans and whether it is involved in issues relating to male infertility," said Gilean McVean, PhD, professor of statistical genetics at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics. McVean was not involved in the research.

The Stanford study showed that the previous, population-based estimates were, for the most part, surprisingly accurate: on average, the sperm in the sample had each undergone about 23 recombinations, or mixing events.