Autophagy, a major catabolic process in eukaryotes, was initially related to cell tolerance to nutrient depletion. In plants autophagy has also been widely related to tolerance to biotic and abiotic stresses (through the induction or repression of programmed cell death, PCD) as well as to promotion of developmentally regulated PCD, starch degradation or caloric restriction important for life span. Much less is known regarding its role in plant cell differentiation. Here we show that macroautophagy, the autophagy pathway driven by engulfment of cytoplasmic components by autophagosomes and its subsequent degradation in vacuoles, is highly active during germ cell differentiation in the early diverging land plant Physcomitrella patens. Our data provide evidence that suppression of ATG5-mediated autophagy results in reduced density of the egg cell-mediated mucilage that surrounds the mature egg, pointing toward a potential role of autophagy in extracellular mucilage formation. In addition, we found that ATG5- and ATG7-mediated autophagy is essential for the differentiation and cytoplasmic reduction of the flagellated motile sperm and hence for sperm fertility. The similarities between the need of macroautophagy for sperm differentiation in moss and mouse are striking, strongly pointing toward an ancestral function of autophagy not only as a protector against nutrient stress, but also in gamete differentiation.
Keywords: Physcomitrella patens; autophagy; cell differentiation; development; egg; fertilization; gamete; secretion; spermatogenesis.