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Elife. 2020 Feb 6;9. pii: e52976. doi: 10.7554/eLife.52976.

Selective egg cell polyspermy bypasses the triploid block.

Author information

Centre for Biomolecular Interactions, University of Bremen, Bremen, Germany.
Institute of Computer Science, Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, Halle, Germany.
Faculty of Biology, Bielefeld University, Bielefeld, Germany.
Center for Biotechnology, Bielefeld University, Bielefeld, Germany.


Polyploidization, the increase in genome copies, is considered a major driving force for speciation. We have recently provided the first direct in planta evidence for polyspermy induced polyploidization. Capitalizing on a novel sco1-based polyspermy assay, we here show that polyspermy can selectively polyploidize the egg cell, while rendering the genome size of the ploidy-sensitive central cell unaffected. This unprecedented result indicates that polyspermy can bypass the triploid block, which is an established postzygotic polyploidization barrier. In fact, we here show that most polyspermy-derived seeds are insensitive to the triploid block suppressor admetos. The robustness of polyspermy-derived plants is evidenced by the first transcript profiling of triparental plants and our observation that these idiosyncratic organisms segregate tetraploid offspring within a single generation. Polyspermy-derived triparental plants are thus comparable to triploids recovered from interploidy crosses. Our results expand current polyploidization concepts and have important implications for plant breeding.


Ever since Darwin published his most famous book on the theory of evolution, scientists have sought to identify the mechanisms that drive the formation of new species. This is especially true for plant biologists who have long been fascinated by the extraordinary diversity of flowering plants.Many species of flowering plant first evolved after a dramatic increase in the DNA content of an individual plant, a process termed polyploidization. Most explanations for polyploidization involve a pollen grain making sperm that mistakenly contain two sets of chromosomes rather than one. Yet, it is difficult to reconcile this explanation with an important aspect of plant reproduction – the so-called “triploid block”.Fertilization in flowering plants is more complicated than in animals. While one sperm fertilizes the egg cell to make the plant embryo, a second sperm from the same pollen grain must fertilize another cell to form the endosperm, the tissue that will nourish the embryo as it develops. This means that sperm with twice the normal number of chromosomes would affect the DNA content of both the embryo and the endosperm. Yet, an endosperm that receives extra paternal DNA typically halts the development of the seed via a process known as the triploid block, meaning it was not clear how often this process would actually result in a polyploid plant.In 2017, researchers reported that plants can, on rare occasions, generate polyploid offspring via a different route: the fertilization of one egg with two sperm rather than one. Now, Mao et al. – who include several researchers involved in the 2017 study – show that this process, termed “polyspermy”, can introduce extra copies of DNA into just the egg cell, meaning it can bypass the triploid block of the endosperm.The experiments involved a model plant called Arabidopsis, and a screen of over 55,000 seeds identified about a dozen with embryos that had three parents, one mother and two fathers. Notably, most of these three-parent embryos developed in seeds that contained endosperm with the regular number of chromosomes and hence escaped the triploid block.These new results show that polyspermy provides plants with a means to essentially sneak extra copies of DNA ‘behind the back’ of the DNA-sensitive endosperm and into the next generation. They also give new insight in how polyploidization may have shaped the evolution of flowering plants and have important implications for agriculture where the breeding of new “hybrid” crops has often been limited by incompatibilities in the endosperm.


A. thaliana; developmental biology; egg cell; plant biology; plant reproduction; polyploidization; polyspermy; triploid block

Conflict of interest statement

YM, AG, TN, PV, TB, DT, DV, IG No competing interests declared, RG The authors declare that they have filed a patent based on this work (EP3485020 A1, CN109790546, US2019159417 A1).

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