Heritable determinants of male fertilization success in the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans

BMC Evol Biol. 2011 Apr 14:11:99. doi: 10.1186/1471-2148-11-99.


Background: Sperm competition is a driving force in the evolution of male sperm characteristics in many species. In the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, larger male sperm evolve under experimentally increased sperm competition and larger male sperm outcompete smaller hermaphrodite sperm for fertilization within the hermaphrodite reproductive tract. To further elucidate the relative importance of sperm-related traits that contribute to differential reproductive success among males, we quantified within- and among-strain variation in sperm traits (size, rate of production, number transferred, competitive ability) for seven male genetic backgrounds known previously to differ with respect to some sperm traits. We also quantified male mating ability in assays for rates of courtship and successful copulation, and then assessed the roles of these pre- and post-mating traits in first- and second-male fertilization success.

Results: We document significant variation in courtship ability, mating ability, sperm size and sperm production rate. Sperm size and production rate were strong indicators of early fertilization success for males that mated second, but male genetic backgrounds conferring faster sperm production make smaller sperm, despite virgin males of all genetic backgrounds transferring indistinguishable numbers of sperm to mating partners.

Conclusions: We have demonstrated that sperm size and the rate of sperm production represent dominant factors in determining male fertilization success and that C. elegans harbors substantial heritable variation for traits contributing to male reproductive success. C. elegans provides a powerful, tractable system for studying sexual selection and for dissecting the genetic basis and evolution of reproduction-related traits.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Caenorhabditis elegans / genetics
  • Caenorhabditis elegans / growth & development
  • Caenorhabditis elegans / physiology*
  • Crosses, Genetic
  • Fertilization / genetics
  • Fertilization / physiology*
  • Inheritance Patterns
  • Male
  • Sexual Behavior, Animal / physiology*
  • Sperm Motility
  • Spermatozoa / physiology