Posted in Science & Nature

Virgin Birth

Although the concept of virgin birth (i.e. conception without intercourse) is common in many religions, there is no conclusive evidence of actual human virgin birth in recorded history. Except in one medical article written in 1874 by a Dr Capers.

In this article, Dr Capers describes a case study of a miraculous conception during the Battle of Raymond during the US Civil War. A soldier was shot in the testicles and the musket ball carried the non-musket ball (read: testicle) into the uterus of a girl working in a nearby field. The doctor attended to the girl who was shot and treated the wound in her abdomen. The bullet was not found.

Over the following nine months, the doctor realised the girl was pregnant, although she claimed to be a virgin. After nine months, a healthy boy was born. Stranger yet, the doctor realised the boy’s scrotum was unusually swollen and upon examination, found that he was carrying the musket ball that impregnated the girl in the first place. He thus concluded that the testicle that was carried by the musket ball was lodged inside her uterus and sperm leaked out. The soldier was eventually found and was told about this bizarre story and the two were married.

This case study has become a famous story told by doctors around the world. Unfortunately, it is completely false and the doctor who wrote the article admitted to faking it to amuse himself. Ergo, there are still no recorded cases of a virgin birth in humans.

The closest to a virgin birth that was recorded is a case study of a young woman who was performing oral sex on a man. She was found by her boyfriend during the act and the boyfriend stabbed her and her lover with a knife. The knife injured her oesophagus, causing the sperm in it to track down the abdomen and down to her reproductive organs. By a stroke of luck, an egg was misplaced during ovulation, causing it to drift into the abdomen instead of the fallopian tube (ectopic pregnancy), and met with the sperm. The egg was then fertilised and the girl presented to the hospital three months later with excruciating abdominal pain. The ectopic fetus was removed.

Posted in Science & Nature

Mitochondrial Eve

We were all born from our parents. Our parents were all born from our grandparents. Everyone has a family tree and a root. If so, is it possible to find the beginning of mankind – our true “root”?

Our cells have an organelle (a part of the cell) called mitochondria. Mitochondria act as the cell’s engine and allow the cell to generate energy through respiration. An interesting fact about them is that they are not originally “ours”. About 1.5 billion years ago, there was an event where a prokaryote (cells without a nucleus, like a bacteria) invaded (or was eaten by) a eukaryote (cells with nuclei, like our cells). The prokaryote and the cell began a symbiosis and the prokaryote became a part of the cell.

Due to the external origin of mitochondria, they have a different genome to us. This is called mitochondrial DNA, shortened to mtDNA, which allows mitochondria to divide and synthesise proteins without the help of the host cell. It used to be a completely independent organism, but it has lost some of its functions to the cell.

mtDNA is inherited in a different way to normal DNA. Normally we receive half of our mother’s and half of our father’s genes, but we only inherit our mother’s mtDNA. This is because sperm keeps mitochondria in the tail which is lost during fertilisation, meaning our father’s mitochondria cannot be inherited. The only way to gain mitochondria is from those in the cytoplasm (the material that fills cells) of our mother’s egg. This is known as maternal inheritance.

Using this information, scientists compared a large sample of people’s mtDNA to turn back the clock. Knowing that a child and its mother share the same mtDNA and the mother and grandmother share the same mtDNA, we can analyse mtDNA to find the origin of mankind, or our first common female ancestor – also called Mitochondrial Eve.

Mitochondrial Eve is estimated to have lived 200,000 years ago in Africa, thus she is also known as African Eve. Her mtDNA is an ancient heirloom passed along generation after generation to us, as evidence of evolution. Every living person on the face of the Earth is a descendant of her. So in some ways, it could be said that we truly are one big family.

Posted in Science & Nature

From Cell To Birth: Fertilisation

Once the sperm enters the vagina, the real battle begins. The vagina is highly acidic, an environment in which sperm can only survive 2~3 hours. It is crucial for the sperm to enter the uterus through the cervix, but only 1% of the 200~300 million sperm make it through.

Even within the uterus, they must brace harsh conditions as they travel against gravity. After about 5 hours of intense swimming, the sperm reach the top of the uterus. Here they face a choice: go left or go right. Half the sperm make the wrong choice and head down the eggless fallopian tube and ultimately die. The rest navigate their way through the maze of folds in the fallopian tube, often getting lost or sticking to the wall thinking that it is an egg.

About 200 sperm finally make it to the egg, which sits in the ampulla of the fallopian tube. But as always, there is competition even at this final moment. Only one sperm can win the race, and the fastest one will ultimately produce a new life.

When the first sperm touches the egg, a series of chemical reactions occur, essentially “priming” the sperm. This causes it to start the acrosome reaction, where it releases a hoard of enzymes from its head, digesting away the covering shell (zona pellucida) of the egg. It then becomes supercharged, using all of its energy to drive itself inwards until it reaches the oocyte within. As soon as this happens, the tail breaks off, and one final chemical reaction as the calcium level spikes occurs to release more enzymes that prevent the acrosome reaction in other sperm. It also solidifies the zona, forming an impenetrable shield to prevent other sperm coming in (polyspermy can lead to a failed pregnancy).

The calcium spike that causes the above cortical reaction also triggers the egg to divide, so that it reaches the most mature stage. The winning sperm can then combine its nucleus with the oocyte, forming the 46 chromosomes that will set the genetic basis of the new zygote (first stage of a baby).

To reach the egg, the sperm must travel over 20cm – beating its tail over 20,000 times. The probability that a certain sperm will fertilise the egg is 1 in 500,000,000.
Life starts under a near-zero probability condition.

(Full series here:

Posted in Science & Nature

From Cell To Birth: Sex

The two copulatory organs are the penis and the vagina. Both are designed to maximise the chance of a new life being conceived.

The penis is normally flaccid, but when stimulated through touch or erotic images and thoughts, it can become stiffened to eight times its original size. Contrary to certain slang words, the penis contains no bones – it is merely a sponge.
When the brain signals the penis to become erect, the sponge is relaxed, letting blood flood in, filling it like a balloon. This combined with two muscles and the sheath enclosing the penis achieves the erection which is critical in sex.

The vagina is shaped to perfectly accommodate an erect penis, and receives the sperm that will eventually fertilise the egg. As sex involves the piston movement of the erect penis within the vagina, it is bound to suffer chafing. So nature developed Bartholin’s glands that produce a lubricant, smoothing the process.
The clitoris actually shares its origin with the penis, and thus swells when sexually excited. It is also extremely sensitive.

The goal of sex is simple – excite the penis enough for the man to achieve an orgasm (note that female orgasm is optional, but ideal, for conception). When a threshold is reached, the brain sends out strong signals to squeeze sperm out from the epididymis, and seminal fluid from the prostate and seminal vesicles. The combined fluid (semen) shoots through over half a metre of tube until it is ejaculated out.
The semen collects in the vagina, where the cervix laps up the semen and transports it into the uterus. From here, the sperm’s adventure begins, facing many troubles to conceive the egg at the end of the line.

(Full series here:

Posted in Psychology & Medicine

From Cell To Birth: A Man And A Woman

Organisms have the amazing ability to beget new life. In bacteria, this can be as simple as splitting itself in two. In humans, however, this process is much more complex.
As a sexually reproducing animal, both a man and a woman are required for the creation of a new person. The process, as complex as is it, is so intricately designed by nature that it could possibly be considered as one of the greatest abilities of the human body.

A man contributes sperm, providing half of the genetic material the future baby. The sperm also decides the sex, depending on whether it carries the X or Y chromosome. Note that gametes only carry half the number of chromosomes (which are usually paired) of a normal cell.
Sperm is made in the testes. Here, under the guidance of hormones such as testosterone and nurturing cells, they grow from a small stem cell, into a plump, round spermatocyte, until it is streamlined to become the sleek spermatozoa that people are more familiar with. All of this occurs as the cell journeys from the outside of the seminiferous tubule to the centre where it is released altogether with its fellow batch.
The sperm is still immature, the equivalent of a high-school graduate. It is expelled into the epididymis, a 4-metre-long tube packed full of concentrated sperm, acting as the “boot camp”. Here, the sperm is drained of extra baggage it is carrying, while learning how to swim effectively. It is stored until the time comes.


A woman contributes an egg, carrying the other half of the genetic material required. It is significantly bigger than a sperm, and as such is produced in much fewer numbers. A woman, unlike a man, has a limit to how many eggs she can produce, and the moment her reservoir runs out is called menopause. Until then, she produces one (or more sometimes) egg every month according to her menstrual cycle.
An egg is developed within a follicle, that acts as a house and oestrogen factory until the egg is released. To get to this stage, it needs to defeat its competitors first. To prevent multiple pregnancies, the ovaries kill all secondary follicles except one dominant follicle. The follicle then ovulates, wherein the oocyte (egg) is expelled almost explosively, caught by the finger-like fimbriae, and then transported towards the uterus via the fallopian tube.
If the egg is not fertilised within a day, it dies and is later expelled with the endometrium, in what every woman knows as a period.

This is only the beginning of the long journey until the miraculous birth of a child.

(Full series here: