Functional similarity and molecular divergence of a novel reproductive transcriptome in two male-pregnant Syngnathus pipefish species


  • Clayton M. Small,

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Biology, Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas, USA
    2. Institute of Ecology and Evolution, University of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon, USA
    • Correspondence

      Clayton M. Small, Institute of Ecology and Evolution, 335 Pacific Hall, 5289 University of Oregon, Eugene, OR 97403 Tel: (541) 346-5189; Fax: (541) 346-2364; E-mail:

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  • April D. Harlin-Cognato,

    1. Department of Zoology, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan, USA
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  • Adam G. Jones

    1. Department of Biology, Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas, USA
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Evolutionary studies have revealed that reproductive proteins in animals and plants often evolve more rapidly than the genome-wide average. The causes of this pattern, which may include relaxed purifying selection, sexual selection, sexual conflict, pathogen resistance, reinforcement, or gene duplication, remain elusive. Investigative expansions to additional taxa and reproductive tissues have the potential to shed new light on this unresolved problem. Here, we embark on such an expansion, in a comparison of the brood-pouch transcriptome between two male-pregnant species of the pipefish genus Syngnathus. Male brooding tissues in syngnathid fishes represent a novel, nonurogenital reproductive trait, heretofore mostly uncharacterized from a molecular perspective. We leveraged next-generation sequencing (Roche 454 pyrosequencing) to compare transcript abundance in the male brooding tissues of pregnant with nonpregnant samples from Gulf (S. scovelli) and dusky (S. floridae) pipefish. A core set of protein-coding genes, including multiple members of astacin metalloprotease and c-type lectin gene families, is consistent between species in both the direction and magnitude of expression bias. As predicted, coding DNA sequence analysis of these putative “male pregnancy proteins” suggests rapid evolution relative to nondifferentially expressed genes and reflects signatures of adaptation similar in magnitude to those reported from Drosophila male accessory gland proteins. Although the precise drivers of male pregnancy protein divergence remain unknown, we argue that the male pregnancy transcriptome in syngnathid fishes, a clade diverse with respect to brooding morphology and mating system, represents a unique and promising object of study for understanding the perplexing evolutionary nature of reproductive molecules.