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With chromosome find, Israelis open possible new path to fight infertility

Researchers say they’ve discovered a key mechanism in ensuring DNA strands inside eggs are organized correctly

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

A young egg with the newly-documented zygotene cilium. (Courtesy of Hebrew University)
A young egg with the newly-documented zygotene cilium. (Courtesy of Hebrew University)

Israeli scientists say they have opened a possible new path to fighting infertility, by identifying a mechanism that seems to harm eggs when it malfunctions.

In peer-reviewed research published on Thursday in the journal Science, a team of Hebrew University researchers outline a mechanism they identified in studies of zebrafish and mice.

They say it plays a key role in ensuring that chromosomes inside eggs are organized correctly, so that they can be fertilized and produce healthy offspring.

“By identifying this mechanism, we’ve actually come up with a new paradigm that could allow us to better understand, and then address, infertility,” Dr. Yaniv Elkouby, a member of the research team, told The Times of Israel.

“One of the leading causes of miscarriages is defects in the organization of chromosome in the egg, but despite the fact it’s really common, we don’t know what’s going wrong,” he explained.

“And the reason we don’t know is we still don’t know enough about the natural process of how chromosomes in an egg are organized. This means we don’t know when things are going wrong and what’s going wrong.”

Dr. Yaniv Elkouby of Hebrew University holding zebrafish in his lab. (Courtesy of Hebrew University)

Elkouby’s biology lab, which specializes in reproduction, explored the subject with mice and zebrafish.

The latter species shares about 70 percent of its genes with humans, and there are a whole host of other similarities that make the small transparent fish an ideal animal model for the study of many human diseases and biological processes.

“What we discovered and documented was the working of a very important part of the machinery that determines the correct organization of chromosomes in eggs,” Elkouby said. “We named it the ‘zygotene cilium’ — cilium being a fiber-like structure that carries out mechanical or signaling roles in cells.”

He said that discovering what seems to be a key part of the fertility process is “exciting” as it means that scientists will be able to research what goes wrong when chromosomes in the egg become displaced — and develop fixes.

“Without the zygotene cilium, the egg cannot develop properly,” he said.

“Now, we can better understand this mechanism that allows eggs to develop normally, and see what is going wrong among infertile women. This creates the groundwork for a new approach to addressing infertility.”

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