Human eggs remain healthy for decades by putting ‘batteries on standby mode’

Immature human egg cells skip a fundamental metabolic reaction thought to be essential for generating energy, according to the findings of a study by researchers at the Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG) published in the journal Nature.

By altering their metabolic activity, the cells avoid creating reactive oxygen species, harmful molecules that can accumulate, damage DNA and cause cell death. The findings explain how human egg cells remain dormant in ovaries for up to 50 years without losing their reproductive capacity.

“Humans are born with all the supply of egg cells they have in life. As humans are also the longest-lived terrestrial mammal, egg cells have to maintain pristine conditions while avoiding decades of wear-and-tear. We show this problem is solved by skipping a fundamental metabolic reaction that is also the main source of damage for the cell. As a long-term maintenance strategy, it’s like putting batteries on standby mode,” says Dr. Aida Rodriguez, postdoctoral researcher at the CRG and first author of the study.

Human eggs are first formed in the ovaries during fetal development, undergoing different stages of maturation. During the early stages of this process, immature egg cells known as oocytes are put into cellular arrest, remaining dormant for up to 50 years in the ovaries. Oocytes have mitochondria — the batteries of the cell — which they use to generate energy for their needs during this period of dormancy.

The findings could lead to new strategies that help preserve the ovarian reserves of patients undergoing cancer treatment.

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