By Zaira Salvador BSc, MSc (embryologist).
Last Update: 06/26/2018

Sperm DNA fragmentation refers to the presence of sperm with damaged (broken) DNA, which affects male fertility.

Alterations of any kind in sperm DNA are likely to cause infertility in the man affected, as integrity of sperm DNA is key to obtaining viable embryos and subsequently a healthy baby.

So, to sum up, the higher the sperm DNA damage index, the lesser the chances of achieving an ongoing pregnancy.

Sperm DNA fragmentation & infertility

Male fertility and sperm quality are evaluated by means of a sperm test or semen analysis report. However, there exist other sperm parameters that are not usually evaluated and can have an impact on fertility as well.

A good example would be sperm DNA fragmentation. It is estimated that about 10-15% of childless males have alterations in the genetic material of the sperm they produce, whilst common parameters like count, motility, and morphology are normal.

In order for fertilization to result in viable embryos with implantation potential, it is necessary that the DNA of both egg and sperm are free from damage and other lesions.

High DNA fragmentation rates can translate into:

  • Reduced fertilization rates
  • Poor embryo quality
  • Reduced implantation rates
  • Increased miscarriage rates

It should be noted that implantation failure and miscarriage risk are present in all cases of patients who undergo fertility treatment as long as the male partner has sperm DNA fragmentation, let alone if this alteration has never been diagnosed before.

DNA fragmentation test for sperm

As explained above, many males have normal sperm test results but the sperm DNA fragmentation index is considerably high. Nevertheless, the most likely is that sperm DNA damage is detected along with other sperm disorders.

In any case, in order to evaluate the quality of sperm DNA, one should undergo a specific test known as sperm DNA fragmentation test.

Some sperm defects, including sperm DNA fragmentation or signs of defective sperm plasma membrane, are not detectable through a semen analysis.

Oftentimes, a couple undergoes DNA fragmentation testing when pregnancy is not achieved after several unsuccessful attempts. The following is a list of the most frequent indications:

There exist several methods for evaluating the level of sperm DNA fragmentation at the laboratory. Nonetheless, the following are the most important ones:

TUNEL Assay

The TUNEL Assay (Terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase dUTP nick end labeling) is a technique used for detecting sperm DNA fragmentation by using bench top flow cytometer.

The TUNEL method involves staining the sperms using a fluorescence microscopy that detects DNA-fragmented spermatozoa only.

When the sample is observed under the flow cytometer or fluorescence microscopy, DNA-fragmented spermatozoa can be seen with greater fluorescent intensity.

Experts recommend that males with sperm DNA fragmentation levels above 30% are more likely to have fertility issues.

SCD test

Sperm Chromatin Dispersion (SCD) test is used to measure the degree of sperm chromatin decondensation.

To this end, sperms are treated using an acid and other substances that prevent DNA loops from forming.

As a result, sperms with intact DNA will have larger sperm chromatin dispersion rates, while those with damaged DNA will have low or non-existent halos of dispersed DNA around the head.

Causes

Over the past few years, evidence has shown that about 25% of infertile men have high levels of sperm DNA fragmentation after doing a sperm DNA fragmentation test.

Many factors can cause sperm DNA to be damaged, including:

High scrotal temperature
Due to episodes of high fever, presence of a varicocele, or wearing too tight clothes.
Seminal infections
Caused by Chlamydia trachomatis, a bacteria that affects sperm quality.
Pharmaceutical medications
Pesticides and high levels of air pollution can affect sperm DNA.
Tobacco consumption
Men who smoke have a decreased sperm quality. In fact, smoking can increase the concentration of sperm with damaged DNA.
Advanced age
Sperm DNA fragmentation increases dramatically with age, especially from age 45 onwards.

Aside from these causes, sperm DNA fragmentation can occur during the sperm production process (spermatogenesis), including failure to identify sperm with defects to eliminate them from the testis, as well as an incomplete sperm maturation process in the epididymis.

Treatment

Not all causes of sperm DNA fragmentation are treatable or can be cured. In all other cases, a treatment based on antioxidants is typically enough to improve sperm quality.

Oxidative stress caused by an increased number of free radicals in the man’s organism causes damage to sperm DNA. For this reason, leading a healthy lifestyle and a balanced is key to reduce the levels of sperm DNA fragmentation.

Some antioxidants that can boost sperm quality are vitamins C, E, and A, which are found in fruits, vegetables, vegetable oils, brown rice, soy, chocolate, oregano, tea, etc.

Treatment with antioxidants for 2 or 3 months can help reduce the levels of sperm DNA fragmentation by 20%.

On the other hand, seminal infections should be treated with antibiotics to reduce the levels of sperm DNA fragmentation. Surgery to treat varicocele also improves sperm DNA integrity and subsequently boost male fertility.

Effect on pregnancy

The fact that a man has elevated levels of sperm DNA fragmentation does not mean that conceiving naturally is impossible. However, the chances of success decrease due to all the reasons explained above.

If the fragmentation index is rather low, it is possible that the egg fixes the damage by itself after fertilization. Although this mechanism of action is still to be studied, it depends highly on the type of damage and egg quality.

In spite of all this, patients with a percent of sperm DNA fragmentation above 30% should go directly for IVF with ICSI treatment, also known as IVF-ICSI.

Artificial Insemination (AI) presents lower success rates in patients with sperm DNA fragmentation. For this reason, this treatment option is not recommended in these cases.

If you need to undergo IVF to become a mother, we recommend that you use "The Calculator". In 3 simple steps, it will show you a list of clinics that fit your preferences and meet our strict quality criteria. Moreover, you will receive a report via email with useful tips to visit a fertility clinic for the first time.

Also, the report will inform you about the promotions or special prices that the clinics selected offer so you can benefit from them as well.

FAQs from users

How much does a sperm fragmentation test cost?

By Zaira Salvador BSc, MSc (embryologist).

The cost of this test is not covered by insurance and is $300, plus the home collection kit that cost $150.

Are tests of sperm DNA damage clinically useful?

By Zaira Salvador BSc, MSc (embryologist).

Absolutely, especially in cases of pregnancy loss by IVF and ICSI, as well as to increase IUI pregnancy rates. However, the true clinical utility of these tests is still to be established, as available studies are still small and few in number.

Can sperm DNA fragmentation be improved?

By Zaira Salvador BSc, MSc (embryologist).

Yes, following a treatment based on antioxidants, as well as vitamin supplements including vitamins C, E, and A. However, the chances of success depend on the level of DNA fragmentation. In the most severe cases, that is, when the percent of DNA fragmentation is above 30%, pregnancy can only be achieved by means of IVF/ICSI.

Can sperm with DNA fragmentation fertilize an egg?

By Zaira Salvador BSc, MSc (embryologist).

Yes, it is not impossible, especially when the level of fragmentation is low or moderate. Sometimes, if the fragmentation index is low, it is possible that the egg cell compensates this alteration and fixes the damage after fertilization, which would result in a viable embryo.

Does sperm DNA fragmentation cause birth defects?

By Zaira Salvador BSc, MSc (embryologist).

Actually, there is no human study showing a direct relationship between birth defects and sperm DNA fragmentation. However, damage in the sperm DNA increases the risks increases the risk of genetic mutations, thereby increasing the risk of miscarriage.

Suggested for you

In addition to this test, there exist other male fertility tests that can be done prior to starting a fertility treatment. Find them all in the following post: Male Fertility Testing – How Do You Know if a Man’s Sperm Is Fertile?

As explained above, IVF with ICSI is the most adequate fertility treatment for those couples who are trying to conceive without luck and testing has show high levels of sperm DNA fragmentation. Check out this for information: What Is ICSI Technique? – Process, Success Rates & Cost.

Authors and contributors

 Zaira Salvador
BSc, MSc
Embryologist
Bachelor's Degree in Biotechnology from the Polytechnic University of Valencia (UPV). Embryologist specializing in Assisted Procreation, with a Master's Degree in Biotechnology of Human Assisted Reproduction from the University of Valencia (UV) and the Valencian Infertility Institute (IVI). More information
License: 3185-CV