Background: Sexual selection has initially been thought to occur exclusively at the precopulatory stage in terms of contests among males and female mate choice, but research over the last four decades revealed that it often continues after copulation through sperm competition and cryptic female choice. However, studying these postcopulatory processes remains challenging because they occur internally and therefore are often difficult to observe. In the transparent free-living flatworm Macrostomum lignano, a recently established transgenic line that expresses green fluorescent protein (GFP) in all cell types, including sperm, offers a unique opportunity to non-invasively visualise and quantify the sperm of a GFP-expressing donor inside the reproductive tract of wild-type recipients in vivo. We here test several aspects of the reproductive performance of the transgenic individuals and the accuracy of the techniques involved in assessing the GFP-expressing worms and their sperm. We then show the usefulness of these methods in a study on sperm displacement.
Results: GFP-expressing worms do not differ from wild-type worms in terms of morphology, mating rate and reproductive success. In addition, we show that the GFP signal is reliably and unequivocally expressed by all GFP-expressing individuals observed under epifluorescence illumination. However, the intensity of the GFP signal emitted by sperm of GFP expressing donors can vary (which we show to be at least in part due to sperm ageing) and the GFP marker is inherited according to Mendel's laws in most, but not all, of the individuals. Nevertheless, we argue these two issues can be addressed with an appropriate experimental design. Finally, we demonstrate the value of the GFP-techniques by comparing the number of GFP-expressing sperm in a wild-type recipient before and after mating with a competing sperm donor, providing clear experimental evidence for sperm displacement in M. lignano. This result suggests that sperm donors can displace previously stored sperm and replace it with their own.
Conclusion: The availability of the GFP-techniques in a transparent organism provide unique opportunities to visualise and quantify internal processes in the female reproductive tract after mating, which opens new avenues in the study of sexual selection.