Lasers solve dairy sperm problem

By Simon Eskow

Artificial insemination research leads to process for sorting sperm cells according to sex.

Cather Simpson (right) instructs students on how to use the femtosecond laser at the Photon Factory.
Cather Simpson (right) instructs students on how to use the femtosecond laser at the Photon Factory.

Physicist Cather Simpson never envisaged herself getting involved in the artificial insemination industry.

The director of the University of Auckland's Photon Factory, a high-tech laser research hub, was more interested in ultrafast lasers when she first met angel investors from tech investment firm Pacific Channel.

"They basically told me there were five big problems facing our dairy industry and asked if I could help with any of them," says Simpson.

"I didn't know anything about sperm sorting when I met them. I didn't even know it was a problem. But that was the challenge that seemed most amenable to a physical, rather than a biological solution."

It took three years, but Simpson and her team have gone from neophytes to solving one of agriculture's most nagging problems. Their research - conducted under a new spinoff company, Engender Technologies, has led to a provisional patent on a technology that should be able to sort sperm cells by sex, quickly, inexpensively and without any loss of function.

The only currently available sex sorting method, flow cytometry, uses an electric field to separate male and female sperm in the field.

However, the stress of the process often results in underperforming sperm, thus negating the benefits of sex selection.

Engender's technology is a direct result of The Photon Factory team's deep knowledge of photonics - the study and use of light for energy - and what lasers can do when they flash in short, extremely rapid bursts.

The factory's $1.7 million high-tech laser research equipment includes a femtosecond laser that can emit light pulses lasting in the order of millionths of a billionth of a second.

Engender was formed with co-funding from the University of Auckland's technology commercialisation arm, UniServices, and Pacific Channel.

Pacific Channel managing director Brent Ogilvie says he and his colleagues originally approached Simpson with their "five problems" because of her reputation.

"The key to early-stage investing is listening carefully to markets and backing talent.

"There are pockets of genius all about the country, so you can't be too prescriptive about picking sectors, but clearly dairy is something we do very well."

Ogilvie says the trillion dollar livestock market is dominated by eight or nine artificial breeding providers worldwide.

Pacific Channel provides a bridge between New Zealand's "world-class science" and the realisation of commercial value, he says.

"What we're doing is applying our problem analysis abilities and the ability of clever people to do cutting edge research in their own area of expertise at the same time," says Simpson.

"There is no doubt that advanced, high-tech science and engineering can add power to the New Zealand economy. We find it very rewarding to be part of that effort."

• Produced in conjunction with the Angel Association of New Zealand.

- NZ Herald

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