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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2008 Sep 9;105(36):13508-13. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0806590105. Epub 2008 Aug 29.

Gamete plasticity in a broadcast spawning marine invertebrate.

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  • 1School of Integrative Biology, University of Queensland, Queensland 4072, Australia.


Sperm competition has classically been thought to maintain anisogamy (large eggs and smaller sperm) because males are thought to maximize their chance of winning fertilizations by trading sperm size for number. More recently it has been recognized that sperm quality (e.g., size, velocity) can also influence sperm competition, although studies have yielded conflicting results. Because sex evolved in the sea, debate has continued over the role of sperm competition and sperm environment in determining both sperm and egg size in externally fertilizing broadcast spawners. Remarkably, however, there have been no direct tests of whether broadcast spawners change the traits of their gametes depending on the likelihood of sperm competition. We manipulated the density (and thus, sperm environment) of a broadcast spawning ascidian (Styela plicata) in the field and then determined whether the phenotype of eggs and sperm changed. We found that sperm from adults kept at high density were larger and more motile than sperm from low-density adults. In vitro fertilizations revealed that sperm from high-density adults also lived longer and induced less polyspermy. Adult density also affected egg traits: eggs from high-density adults were smaller targets for sperm overall but produced larger ovicells than eggs from low-density adults. This suggests that broadcast spawning mothers balance (potentially conflicting) pre- and postzygotic selection pressures on egg size. Overall, our results suggest that sperm competition does not represent a strong force maintaining anisogamy in broadcast spawners. Instead, sperm limitation seems to select for large eggs and smaller, more numerous sperm.

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