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A study on zebrafish reveals how sexual rivalry can affect sperm function and quality

Led by the University of Alicante and the Swedish University of Upsala, it suggests a new model for the advance in fertility and reproduction studies in humans

The research has been published in the prestigious scientific Journal of Evolutionary Biology



Images: Paula Sáez, María José Gómez and Alejandro Romero at the UA labs. Sperm samples and an image taken with a fluorescence microscope: the blue colour detects the genetic material (DNA) and green marks the tail of the sperm


Alicante, Wednesday 10 April 2019

The presence of a rival male affects sperm quality, according to a research study led by the University of Alicante and the University of Upsala (Sweden). The work has been carried out with adult zebrafish (Danio rerio) and reveals that male spermatozoa exposed to high competition (two males and a single female) present dramatic changes in phenotype resulting in faster and more competitive spermatozoa. However, this phenotypic plasticity may incur a cost in the next generation as it has negative effects on DNA integrity.

According to University of Alicante PhD student at the Department of Biotechnology and lead author of the study Paula Sáez, results are revealing as this model provides detailed new data on how sexual competence can affect the sperm function and quality.

The research methodology has been as follows: exposing the male zebrafish to a high competition treatment for two weeks, keeping two males with one female or a low competition treatment, i.e. a male with two females. Although the presence of a rival male increases the competitiveness of spermatozoa, it has negative effects on DNA, Sáez added. A possible explanation for the difference in damage to genetic material is that males in highly competitive treatment experience higher stress levels, probably triggering greater production of reactive oxygen species. This increase could be triggering the damage observed in the DNA chains, affecting both the fertilisation success and the offspring survival, as stated by the UA researcher.

The work, published in the prestigious scientific journal Journal of Evolutionary Biology, proposes new experimental designs and analysis techniques in reproduction biology. Animal research is key for advancing knowledge of the mechanisms involved in the biology of human development. In this sense, as suggested by UA Research Chair in Human Fertility Director and coordinator of the study María José Gómez, zebrafish is an extraordinary model for studies due to its high level of fertility, the genetic similarity with humans, and the external fertilisation that produce transparent embryos



Variations in shape and size

The special structural organisation of the sperm comes from complex morpho-genetic changes during the spermiogenesis, that is, when the nucleus is extended and remains in the head of the sperm, the mitochondria are placed in the neck and the centrioles give rise to a flagellum or tail.

 As explained by Alejandro Romero, also author of this study and researcher at the UA Department of Biotechnology, shapes and sizes of spermatozoa varies between species.  However, the genetic influence on cell design and its relationship to sperm rivalry is still little known. Romero also explained that in this study, through the application of geometric morphometry, an analysis technique defined as the union between biology and geometry, they have managed to painstakingly isolate variations in the sperm shape and size, also analysing their relationship with other cell signalling mechanisms.

Thus, the consequences of the presence of a rival male in zebrafish are spermatozoa with a phenotype characterised by smaller heads and an elongation of their intermediate pieces and flagella, as opposed to those exposed to low competition. In the processing of high rivalry, sperm appeared to be less sensitive to osmotic stress induced by water, according to the UA researchers However, these sperm showed higher rates of DNA damage.

 Reproduction is key to understanding species diversification and evolution. This is why the UA researchers insisted on the need to design biological models to understand aspects of sperm function and quality during the sperm competition. Accordingly, interdisciplinary work between researchers from Alicante and Sweden allows us to propose new experimental designs and analysis techniques in reproduction biology.


Image: Sexual rivalry in zebrafish (Danio rerio) induces morpho-genetic changes in sperm. In the image, variations in shape and size with two males and a female (pink) and with two females a male (blue).


“The effects of male social environment on sperm phenotype and genome integrity”, Willian T. A. F. Silva, Paula Sáez-Espinosa, Stéphanie Torijo-Boix, Alejandro Romero, Caroline Devaux, Mathilde Durieux, María José Gómez-Torres, Simone Immler. Journal of Evolutionary Biology (2019)


Related video: “Learning about hereditary diseases from zebrafish” Author: University of Upsala (Sweden)


Statements by Paula Sáez, lead author of the study




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