Darwinian evolution of reproductive proteins in mammals

ITHACA, N.Y. -- Chemical signals at the most critical moment for new life in mammals -- when sperm meets egg and attempts fertilization -- evolve rapidly in a process driven by positive Darwinian selection, according to a Cornell University study.

New statistical studies of sequence divergence among egg-surface and oviduct proteins, reported by Willie J. Swanson, Mariana F. Wolfner and Charles F. Aquadro of Cornell University and Ziheng Yang of University College London (UCL) in the Feb. 27, 2001, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences , demonstrate for the first time that natural selection drives rapid changes in these female proteins at the site of sperm-egg interaction.

Beyond providing long-sought molecular evidence in female proteins for evolutionary theories about sperm competition, sexual conflict and cryptic female choice, this study's findings could have at least one practical application concerning infertility and also could help explain how new species evolve, says Aquadro, a Cornell professor of population genetics.

"We think we're seeing a cat-and-mouse game happening, on the molecular level, with the co-evolution of female and male reproductive proteins," says Swanson, a postdoctoral associate in Cornell's Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics.

"However," Swanson emphasizes, "the basic process of conception is clearly conserved throughout evolution: A sperm with proteinaceous chemical signals on its surface finds an egg. Then other proteins on the surface of the egg check out the sperm proteins for species compatibility."

Says Wolfner, a professor of developmental biology in Cornell's Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics: "If a sperm of the right species finds an egg, proteins on the egg's surface let the sperm bind, penetrate and begin fertilization. What is new about our finding is that portions of the female proteins involved in these interactions are shown to have been driven to change rap

Contact: Roger Segelken
Cornell University News Service

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