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Open Access Research article

Reproductive protein evolution in two cryptic species of marine chordate

Marie L Nydam* and Richard G Harrison

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Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14853, USA

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Citation and License

BMC Evolutionary Biology 2011, 11:18  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-11-18

Published: 19 January 2011



Reproductive character displacement (RCD) is a common and taxonomically widespread pattern. In marine broadcast spawning organisms, behavioral and mechanical isolation are absent and prezygotic barriers between species often operate only during the fertilization process. Such barriers are usually a consequence of differences in the way in which sperm and egg proteins interact, so RCD can be manifest as faster evolution of these proteins between species in sympatry than allopatry. Rapid evolution of these proteins often appears to be a consequence of positive (directional) selection. Here, we identify a set of candidate gamete recognition proteins (GRPs) in the ascidian Ciona intestinalis and showed that these GRPs evolve more rapidly than control proteins (those not involved in gamete recognition). Choosing a subset of these gamete recognition proteins that show evidence of positive selection (CIPRO37.40.1, CIPRO60.5.1, CIPRO100.7.1), we then directly test the RCD hypothesis by comparing divergence (omega) and polymorphism (McDonald-Kreitman, Tajima's D, Fu and Li's D and F, Fay and Wu's H) statistics in sympatric and allopatric populations of two distinct forms of C. intestinalis (Types A and B) between which there are strong post-zygotic barriers.


Candidate gamete recognition proteins from two lineages of C. intestinalis (Type A and B) are evolving more rapidly than control proteins, consistent with patterns seen in insects and mammals. However, ω (dN/dS) is not significantly different between the sympatric and allopatric populations, and none of the polymorphism statistics show significant differences between sympatric and allopatric populations.


Enhanced prezygotic isolation in sympatry has become a well-known feature of gamete recognition proteins in marine broadcast spawners. But in most cases the evolutionary process or processes responsible for this pattern have not been identified. Although gamete recognition proteins in C. intestinalis do appear to evolve more rapidly, on average, than proteins with other functions, rates of evolution are not different in allopatric and sympatric populations of the two reproductively isolated forms. That sympatry is probably human-mediated, and therefore recent, may explain the absence of RCD.