Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Fertility in the 21st Century

Credit: Clicknique/iStockphoto

Credit: Clicknique/iStockphoto

By Rebecca Robker & Eileen McLaughlin

Fertility is a diverse field of research that encompasses male and female infertility, pregnancy complications, and environmental and lifestyle influences that can affect the reproductive health not only of future generations but also our native wildlife.

In Australia today, one in six couples experiences infertility and typically one child in every classroom was conceived by medically assisted reproduction technologies like IVF. Conversely, an estimated 25% of all pregnancies are electively terminated. Meanwhile, the search for improved contraceptives continues, including contraceptives for men. These prevalent yet polar opposite fertility issues illustrate that reproduction sits squarely at the forefront of health challenges in Australia.

These and other issues are highlighted in this month’s edition of Australasian Science. Our expert contributors are each members of the Society for Reproductive Biology, Australia’s professional network of reproductive biologists and biomedical scientists.

This issue will outline the latest research examining how a woman’s number of eggs is determined so that future fertility can be better predicted, and reveal emerging data that men who experience infertility are also more likely to die younger. Meanwhile, pluripotent stem cells could revolutionise regenerative medicine and eliminate genetic diseases if we can fully understand and safely utilise their potential clinically.

Pregnancy complications are a major concern for prospective parents. However, new algorithms could predict a woman’s chance of developing life-threatening pre-eclampsia, and new drugs may be on the horizon to prevent preterm births.

There is strong evidence that our modern lifestyle is detrimental to healthy reproduction, with obesity dramatically affecting both male and female fertility as well as the lifetime health of the child in utero. Indeed, the evidence is clear that child health is established prior to birth. By reducing inequalities, particularly in maternal reproductive health in our most dis­advantaged communities, we can greatly improve the health of future generations.

Fertility is also a critical concern for our domesticated livestock and native species. Australian farms effectively use reproductive technologies, such as artificial insemination, to enhance the productivity of their dairy cows. Conversely, feral species can be contained by effective fertility management.

Some of our diverse native species have famously unique reproductive strategies, from egg-laying mammals to marsupials that nurture their offspring in pouches. Unfortunately the delicate developmental biology of our marsupial joeys is being disfigured by endocrine-disrupting pollutants in the environment. Genome banking and reproductive technologies are being developed for some of our endangered native species, such as koalas and Tasmanian devils.

The Society for Reproductive Biology is working to solve these clinical, agricultural and environmental problems by discovering how eggs and sperm are formed and released, and elucidating the mechanisms by which they come together to trigger embryo development, subsequent implantation, placental formation and ultimately the birth of a new being.

This edition of Australasian Science brings together a snapshot of this diverse field of reproduction research into the new frontiers of fertility research.

This edition of Australasian Science is guest edited by A/Prof Rebecca Robker of The University of Adelaide’s Robinson Research Institute and Prof Eileen McLaughlin, who is Pro Vice Chancellor of the Faculty of Science and IT at The University of Newcastle and immediate Past President of the Society for Reproductive Biology.