Seahorse Brood Pouch Transcriptome Reveals Common Genes Associated with Vertebrate Pregnancy

Mol Biol Evol. 2015 Dec;32(12):3114-31. doi: 10.1093/molbev/msv177. Epub 2015 Sep 1.


Viviparity (live birth) has evolved more than 150 times in vertebrates, and represents an excellent model system for studying the evolution of complex traits. There are at least 23 independent origins of viviparity in fishes, with syngnathid fishes (seahorses and pipefish) unique in exhibiting male pregnancy. Male seahorses and pipefish have evolved specialized brooding pouches that provide protection, gas exchange, osmoregulation, and limited nutrient provisioning to developing embryos. Pouch structures differ widely across the Syngnathidae, offering an ideal opportunity to study the evolution of reproductive complexity. However, the physiological and genetic changes facilitating male pregnancy are largely unknown. We used transcriptome profiling to examine pouch gene expression at successive gestational stages in a syngnathid with the most complex brood pouch morphology, the seahorse Hippocampus abdominalis. Using a unique time-calibrated RNA-seq data set including brood pouch at key stages of embryonic development, we identified transcriptional changes associated with brood pouch remodeling, nutrient and waste transport, gas exchange, osmoregulation, and immunological protection of developing embryos at conception, development and parturition. Key seahorse transcripts share homology with genes of reproductive function in pregnant mammals, reptiles, and other live-bearing fish, suggesting a common toolkit of genes regulating pregnancy in divergent evolutionary lineages.

Keywords: Hippocampus abdominalis; RNA-seq; Syngnathidae; brood pouch; evolution; gestation; live birth; male pregnancy; reproduction.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution
  • Female
  • Fertilization
  • Gene Expression Profiling
  • Male
  • Reproduction / genetics*
  • Sequence Analysis, RNA
  • Sexual Behavior, Animal
  • Smegmamorpha / genetics*
  • Viviparity, Nonmammalian / genetics*

Associated data

  • SRA/SRP049289