Sexual selection and the adaptive evolution of mammalian ejaculate proteins

Mol Biol Evol. 2008 Jan;25(1):207-19. doi: 10.1093/molbev/msm242. Epub 2007 Nov 20.


An elevated rate of substitution characterizes the molecular evolution of reproductive proteins from a wide range of taxa. Although the selective pressures explaining this rapid evolution are yet to be resolved, recent evidence implicates sexual selection as a potentially important explanatory factor. To investigate this hypothesis, we sought evidence of a high rate of adaptive gene evolution linked to postcopulatory sexual selection in muroid rodents, a model vertebrate group displaying a broad range of mating systems. Specifically, we sequenced 7 genes from diverse rodents that are expressed in the testes, prostate, or seminal vesicles, products of which have the potential to act in sperm competition. We inferred positive Darwinian selection in these genes by estimation of the ratio of nonsynonymous (d(N), amino acid changing) to synonymous (d(S), amino acid retaining) substitution rates (omega = d(N)/d(S)). Next, we tested whether variation in this ratio among lineages could be attributed to interspecific variation in mating systems, as inferred from the variation in these rodents' relative testis sizes (RTS). Four of the 7 genes examined (Prm1, Sva, Acrv1, and Svs2, but not Svp2, Msmb, or Spink3) exhibit unambiguous evidence of positive selection. One of these, the seminal vesicle-derived protein Svs2, also shows some evidence for a concentration of positive selection in those lineages in which sperm competition is common. However, this was not a general trend among all the rodent genes we examined. Using the same methods, we then reanalyzed previously published data on 2 primate genes, SEMG1 and SEMG2. Although SEMG2 also shows evidence of positive selection concentrated in lineages subject to high levels of sperm competition, no such trend was found for SEMG1. Overall, despite a high rate of positive selection being a feature of many ejaculate proteins, these results indicate that the action of sexual selection potentially responsible for elevated evolutionary rates may be difficult to detect on a gene-by-gene basis. Although the extreme diversity of reproductive phenotypes exhibited in nature attests to the power of sexual selection, the extent to which this force predominates in driving the rapid molecular evolution of reproductive genes therefore remains to be determined.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological / genetics*
  • Animals
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Male
  • Prostatic Secretory Proteins / genetics*
  • Prostatic Secretory Proteins / metabolism
  • Rodentia / genetics*
  • Rodentia / metabolism
  • Selection, Genetic*
  • Seminal Vesicle Secretory Proteins / genetics*
  • Seminal Vesicle Secretory Proteins / metabolism
  • Testis / metabolism


  • Prostatic Secretory Proteins
  • Seminal Vesicle Secretory Proteins