Global warming will increase ocean temperatures at the same time as it reduces seawater viscosity and Evatt Chirgwin wanted to know how this combination of physiological and physical change would affect male fertility in a small tubeworm. He found that both these factors independently reduced male fertility, and together altered selection pressures on sperm morphology.
Most marine species release gametes into the water column and successful fertilisation depends on a sperm locating and fusing with an egg. This high-risk strategy is in stark contrast with many terrestrial species where sperm and eggs interact in the controlled environment of a female reproductive tract, making marine species more vulnerable to global warming.
Projected ocean temperature increases are expected to reduce male fertility because exposure to temperatures outside the usual range can disrupt physiological processes and cell function. But the viscosity or ‘thickness’ of the seawater will also change with increasing temperatures, and Evatt was interested in understanding how the fact that sperm are able to move more easily through the water would affect male fertility.
Because these two things tend to change together, up until now no one has considered how decreases in viscosity at higher temperatures might alter fertility as well as selection pressure on sperm structure. Sperm with larger heads have increased ‘drag’ while a long tail can increase swimming speeds – these might not matter so much when seawater is easier to pass through.
So how do temperature and viscosity affect male fertility and the selection forces acting on the size and shape of sperm? Evatt and his supervisors (Keyne Monro and Dustin Marshall) measured fertilisation success at three temperatures and used a hydrophilic polymer that allows warmer water to be adjusted to the same viscosity as cooler water (but not the other way around).
Evatt measured head size, midpiece size and tail length in the sperm of 157 males that had access to eggs from a variety of females in five different fertilisation environments.
The team found that the isolated effects of temperature and viscosity each caused fertility to decline by around 5% from current to moderate warming and by another 5% from moderate to extreme warming. But temperature and viscosity acted together to alter selection on sperm morphology. The ‘midpiece’ that houses the mitochondria, was a target for selection at the projected, warmer environments. A shorter midpiece was favoured in moderate warming environments, while a wider midpiece was favoured at the more extreme, longer-term projections of warming.
Evatt and his supervisors think that since the midpiece contain the mitochondria that provide energy, it is probable that changes in temperature and viscosity will change the energy requirements of sperm during the location and fertilisation of eggs.
For the first time, the team show how projected changes in water temperature and viscosity may impact the fertility of marine populations and expose sperm to novel evolutionary pressures that may drive them to adapt in response.