Since its publication on the 28th of April 2018, this “news story” has been sweeping through the vast digital plains of Facebook and Twitter:
The title proclaims itself as a straight-up fact. And the article it leads to bases this bold claim on genuine scientific studies, which it provides links to. In the spirit of all works of fiction, the (unspecified) author brings the story to a dramatic climax:
“Sperm is alive. It is living cells. When it is injected into you it swims and swims until it crashes headlong into a wall, and then it attaches and burrows into your flesh. If it’s in your mouth it swims and climbs into your nasal passages, inner ear, and behind your eyes. Then it digs in. It enters your blood stream and collects in your brain and spine.”
Posts of this theme have been circulating since mid-2017, spurred by the discovery (and spurious interpretation) of a study conducted way back in 2012. The first dubious exposition, published by YourNewsWire, inspired a wave of click-batey articles from fact-checking-averse bloggers and pseudo-news sites. These have been thoroughly discredited by publications like Snopes and Forbes. However, the internet is the kind of place where news about brain-burrowing sperm spreads faster and further than reports based on the boring old truth.
Latest in the proliferation of male-DNA-fearing articles, the April 28 story, published on a site called Bimber, makes some pretty out-there claims and plays fast-and-loose with the findings of each of the studies cited. Scroll to the bottom of the article, though, and you’ll find this:
Here’s their contact form:
The fake news article isn’t even pretending to be real news. In fact, it is a word-for-word copy of the original YourNewsWire story (published on the 23rd of June 2017 by Baxter Dmitry). The Bimber article is quite open about the fact that it is merely an advertisement for a website theme. Hosted by Themeforest, Bimber is targeted at people wishing to create a viral content website. It markets itself as the “#1 selling viral theme” and is full of similarly click-batey articles designed to show potential buyers how well the package works. Seems it’s doing a good job. Before I’d even finished this article, the counter on the Bimber story had shot up by another 10,000 shares.
Based on the Twitter and Facebook action, it’s possible these stats are legit:
Please tell me there’s an antidote for this. https://t.co/myVPZSLkOu
— Courtney Cilman (@courtneycilman) May 4, 2018
SO THIS IS WHAT’S GOING ON WITH WOMEN! OMG https://t.co/ANJRxNgAlQ
— Karen Smith (@KarenSm83759854) May 4, 2018
This is so creepy.https://t.co/kBB1zLIUpX
— Dawna (@danrivermama) May 2, 2018
What if the click-baiters are accidentally right?
While the article is a self-aware fake news story based on a non-self-aware but discredited fake news story, it’s possible it may have unintentionally stumbled into a twilight zone of truth-potentiality. There are, in fact, two hypothesised sperm-brain connections in the scientific literature thus far.
Sperm cells might be capable of fusing with more than just eggs
Back in 2009, an article in the Journal of Theoretical Biology hypothesised that the characteristics of spermatozoa may allow them to fuse, not just with an egg but with somatic (non-reproductive) cells. To be clear, these scientists did not test their hypothesis but merely proposed it. To date, the theory appears not to have been investigated in humans.
Chemicals in semen can do some pretty crazy things
Researchers at UNSW found seminal fluid from previous partners directly impacted the size of offspring … in fruit flies. Which is cool. But insects are pretty different to humans. Dragonflies, for example, have special penis-scrapers that scoop out the sperm of previous mates so they can replace it with their own (here’s a link to an incredibly detailed article about dragonfly penises if that kind of thing interests you).
The Daily Mail ignored reality and went with a sensationalised heading suggesting the study was relevant to humans.
While the headline was misleading, the article nestled under it was science-based, with no reference to the study making implications about anyone other than fruit flies.
Although the scientists made no suggestion that their work could have relevance to humans, the lead author, Dr Crean, did tell Science Daily:
“Our discovery complicates our entire view of how variation is transmitted across generations, but also opens up exciting new possibilities and avenues of research. Just as we think we have things figured out, nature throws us a curve ball and shows us how much we still have to learn.”
So is there sperm in my brain or what?
No. Just no.
Microchimerism (the micro-presence of foreign DNA in an organism) is a known phenomenon in humans but there’s no evidence linking it to sperm. However, as Dr Crean said, “just as we think we have things figured out, nature throws us a curve ball and shows us how much we still have to learn.”
Perhaps the UNSW findings, or the hypothesis proposed in the Journal of Theoretical Biology, will prompt testing in humans. The wonderful thing about our ever-evolving reality is, previously fake news can become truth. But, just for the record, that doesn’t make the news any less fake today.