29 December 2008
The invention: Practical techniques for the artificial insemination of farm animals that have revolutionized livestock breeding practices throughout the world. The people behind the invention: Lazzaro Spallanzani (1729-1799), an Italian physiologist Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov (1870-1932), a Soviet biologist R. W. Kunitsky, a Soviet veterinarian Reproduction Without Sex The tale is told of a fourteenth-century Arabian chieftain who sought to improve his mediocre breed of horses. Sneaking into the territory of a neighboring hostile tribe, he stimulated a prize stallion to ejaculate into a piece of cotton. Quickly returning home, he inserted this cotton into the vagina of his own mare, who subsequently gave birth to a high-quality horse. This may have been the first case of “artificial insemination,” the technique by which semen is introduced into the female reproductive tract without sexual contact. The first scientific record of artificial insemination comes from Italy in the 1770’s. Lazzaro Spallanzani was one of the foremost physiologists of his time, well known for having disproved the theory of spontaneous generation, which states that living organisms can spring “spontaneously” from lifeless matter. There was some disagreement at that time about the basic requirements for reproduction in animals. It was unclear if the sex act was necessary for an embryo to develop, or if it was sufficient that the sperm and eggs come into contact. Spallanzani began by studying animals in which union of the sperm and egg normally takes place outside the body of the female. He stimulated males and females to release their sperm and eggs, then mixed these sex cells in a glass dish. In this way, he produced young frogs, toads, salamanders, and silkworms. Next, Spallanzani asked whether the sex act was also unnecessary for reproduction in those species in which fertilization normally takes place inside the body of the female. He collected semen that had been ejaculated by a male spaniel and, using a syringe, injected the semen into the vagina of a female spaniel in heat. Two months later, she delivered a litter of three pups, which bore some resemblance to both the mother and the male that had provided the sperm. It was in animal breeding that Spallanzani’s techniques were to have their most dramatic application. In the 1880’s, an English dog breeder, Sir Everett Millais, conducted several experiments on artificial insemination. He was interested mainly in obtaining offspring from dogs that would not normally mate with one another because of difference in size. He followed Spallanzani’s methods to produce a cross between a short, low, basset hound and the much larger bloodhound. Long-Distance Reproduction Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov was a Soviet biologist who was commissioned by his government to investigate the use of artificial insemination on horses. Unlike previous workers who had used artificial insemination to get around certain anatomical barriers to fertilization, Ivanov began the use of artificial insemination to reproduce thoroughbred horses more effectively. His assistant in this work was the veterinarian R. W. Kunitsky. In 1901, Ivanov founded the Experimental Station for the Artificial Insemination of Horses. As its director, he embarked on a series of experiments to devise the most efficient techniques for breeding these animals. Not content with the demonstration that the technique was scientifically feasible, he wished to ensure further that it could be practiced by Soviet farmers. If sperm from a male were to be used to impregnate females in another location, potency would have to be maintained for a long time. Ivanov first showed that the secretions from the sex glands were not required for successful insemination; only the sperm itself was necessary. He demonstrated further that if a testicle were removed from a bull and kept cold, the sperm would remain alive. More useful than preservation of testicles would be preservation of the ejaculated sperm. By adding certain salts to the sperm-containing fluids, and by keeping these at cold temperatures, Ivanov was able to preserve sperm for long periods. Ivanov also developed instruments to inject the sperm, to hold the vagina open during insemination, and to hold the horse in place during the procedure. In 1910, Ivanov wrote a practical textbook with technical instructions for the artificial insemination of horses. He also trained some three hundred veterinary technicians in the use of artificial insemination, and the knowledge he developed quickly spread throughout the Soviet Union. Artificial insemination became the major means of breeding horses. Until his death in 1932, Ivanov was active in researching many aspects of the reproductive biology of animals. He developed methods to treat reproductive diseases of farm animals and refined methods of obtaining, evaluating, diluting, preserving, and disinfecting sperm. He also began to produce hybrids between wild and domestic animals in the hope of producing new breeds that would be able to withstand extreme weather conditions better and that would be more resistant to disease. His crosses included hybrids of ordinary cows with aurochs, bison, and yaks, as well as some more exotic crosses of zebras with horses. Ivanov also hoped to use artificial insemination to help preserve species that were in danger of becoming extinct. In 1926, he led an expedition to West Africa to experiment with the hybridization of different species of anthropoid apes. Impact The greatest beneficiaries of artificial insemination have been dairy farmers. Some bulls are able to sire genetically superior cows that produce exceptionally large volumes of milk. Under natural conditions, such a bull could father at most a few hundred offspring in its lifetime. Using artificial insemination, a prize bull can inseminate ten to fifteen thousand cows each year. Since frozen sperm may be purchased through the mail, this also means that dairy farmers no longer need to keep dangerous bulls on the farm. Artificial insemination has become the main method of reproduction of dairy cows, with about 150 million cows (as of 1992) produced this way throughout the world. In the 1980’s, artificial insemination gained added importance as a method of breeding rare animals. Animals kept in zoo cages, animals that are unable to take part in normal mating, may still produce sperm that can be used to inseminate a female artificially. Some species require specific conditions of housing or diet for normal breeding to occur, conditions not available in all zoos. Such animals can still reproduce using artificial insemination.