Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Worm sperm

ResearchBlogging.orgYou may have never thought about what feature distinguishes males from females. After all, in mammals the differences are often clear to us. In other groups too, the differences between male and female traits are often conspicuous. But, there are many species where male and female reproductive organs are both present in the same individual. Even in these species we can tell male parts from female parts.

To distinguish male from female we look at the relative size of the sex cells or gametes. Males produce the smaller gametes (e.g. sperm) and females produce the larger gametes (e.g. eggs). This difference in the size of the gametes is known as anisogamy, which essentially means without ("an") the same ("iso") gametes ("gamy"). 

The converse of anisogamy is isogamy. Species that are isogamous are very rare now, but this is thought to be the ancestral condition. As in anisogamous species where fertilisation only occurs when egg and sperm meet, fertilisation cannot occur in isogamous species unless the gametes of two different mating types meet. In isogamous species mating types are are referred to by various names, such as "+" and "-", in place of male and female.

The origins of anisogamy are unclear, but we have a pretty good explanation for why it evolved. Each gamete an individual produces costs energy and it must be stocked with additional reserves so that the zygote can complete development and start acquiring it's own energy. In isogamy, each member of a pair contributes half the energy to produce a viable offspring. In anisogamy, the cost is overwhelmingly paid by one of the mating types.

Investing almost nothing in individual gametes comes with a huge advantage, vastly more gametes can be produced increasing the number of offspring you can potentially produce. The more gametes an individual has the more fertilisations and individual can potentially achieve. Once one mating type gets far enough down the path of small gametes, its pair can't follow because that is likely to result in a zygote that doesn't have enough resources to survive.

It is relatively clear that fertilisation success has driven the evolution of males that produce more, small sperm. However, there are other aspects of sperm size and shape that appear to contribute to fertilisation success and these are surprisingly variable among and within species. Clear demonstrations that differences in sperm characteristics affect fertilisation success are rare, which makes a new paper in Evolution particularly interesting. 

Darren Johnson of the National Centre for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, with Keyne Monro and Dustin Marshall of UQ (now both at Monash) looked at sperm traits in the broadcast spawning tubeworm, Galeolaria gemineoa. These worms can occur individually or in huge aggregations, leading to substantial variation in the concentrations of sperm and eggs in the wild. Because they don't leave their tubes, their options for increasing fertilisation success are limited relative to mobile species.

A colony of Galeolaria caespitosa, which are nearly identical to G. gemineoa (photo D. Semmens).
Groups of eggs from multiple females were exposed to the sperm of a single male at six different concentrations and two different ages. Fertilisation success was measured at the proportion of eggs that were undergoing normal development within each treatment. This is not a direct measure of fertilisation success because some embryos may have died very early due to genetic incompatibilities rather than the absence of fertilisation. However, it is a reasonable and practical proxy.

At high sperm concentrations, males that produced sperm with longer average tail length and smaller average head size achieved greater fertilisation success. In contrast, males that produced sperm with longer than average heads were favored at low sperm concentrations and older age. The results suggest that variation in sperm size and shape within a species may be preserved because different fertilisation environments favor contrasting sperm characteristics. 

The logistics of genetically assigning paternity prevented the authors from varying sperm competition environments. Had the sperm of multiple males been in competition to fertilise the eggs, different traits or trait combinations could have been favoured. While it is probably more realistic to pit the sperm of several males against each other, single male experiments still provide useful insights into selection on sperm traits.

An abbreviated version of this post also appears in the Research Highlights on the Australasian Evolution Society website.


Johnson, D., Monro, K., & Marshall, D. (2013). The maintenance of sperm variability: Context-dependent selection on sperm morphology in a broadcast spawning invertebrate Evolution, 67 (5), 1383-1395 DOI: 10.1111/evo.12022

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