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How a ‘Star Wars’ Parody Became an Important Simulation of Conception

A certain spherical structure gets the scientific treatment.

In the beginning, scientists were looking for a way to accurately depict (through animation) the frenetic movement of sperm tails when racing to fertilize the ovum and use that motion to learn things about sperm in general. To animate that movement, the researchers had to turn to Hollywood visual effects tools. Using physics-based animation software researchers, Donald Ingber and Charles Riley were able to use molecular science and cellular knowledge to create a simulation of a sperm’s tail movement on an atomic level. Naturally, they turned it into a Star Wars parody. Surprisingly, it has become a seriously influential film.

The short film, like the blockbusters that inspired it, would be pretty hard to follow if it weren’t for the tell-tale scrolling script.“In the beginning, in darkness, the struggle for supremacy has already begun. Countless agents have been deployed, and are on their way, each willing to sacrifice its life to complete the mission. This is their destiny, but only one will be victor…” This is how Ingber and Riley write about sperm. Someone at Lucasfilm should probably get them a gig.

But it’s what comes next that is both interesting and important.

The sperm are off, racing to win to the sound of a knock-off-John Williams score. The sperm, which move remarkably like fish out of water, fight to get to the egg and then begin digging their way in. This moment, which spans what feels like an entire minute, feels oddly reminiscent of a certain fighter pilot yelling “Almost There!” in a certain Star Wars installment that resembles, more generally, the very reproductive system (and moment in that system) shown in the parody.

While the sperm insert themselves into the egg, we get a close-up look at the microtubule subunits, binding domain, and the dynein protein motors that work together to move the sperm forward. Their movement is nearly hypnotic in its synchronicity, and their combined effort makes sperm tails compress and curve, causing them to move. The science isn’t just explanatory: it could also help researchers learn more about how certain sperm defects linked to size and shape of all parts of the sperm could affect infertility. 

The film is rated “Scientific,” with the qualification that “Under 17 has the Same Responsibility to View this as an Adult.”