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Keywords:

  • plant size;
  • sequential hermaphroditism;
  • sex switch threshold;
  • stress conditions

Summary

  • 1
    In environmental sex determination (ESD) gender is decided after conception, depending on the environment, rather than being genetically fixed. ESD in plants has been mainly studied in angiosperms, where the dominant form of ESD is sexual lability. Surprisingly, ESD has rarely been studied in homosporous ferns, the only plants in which ESD is the rule, rather than the exception.
  • 2
    Here, we address the mechanism underlying ESD for the fern Woodwardia radicans by experimentally manipulating nutrient availability and gametophyte density.
  • 3
    Stress (limited nutrient supply, crowding) affected sexual expression in W. radicans gametophytes in a way compatible with ESD. Under good growth conditions (low density or high nutrient), gametophytes matured sexually at a relatively large size and turned into females and subsequently into bisexuals. Under harsh growth conditions, gametophytes matured sexually at a smaller size and turned into males.
  • 4
    Interestingly, gametophyte sexual expression was consistent with the size-advantage model, because the number of archegonia increased with gametophyte size, but not the number of antheridia.
  • 5
    The sex switch threshold size was variable and decreased with increasing stress, as predicted by age and size to maturity models.
  • 6
    Synthesis. Sexual expression in fern gametophytes can be fruitfully studied within the ESD theoretical framework. Stress induced male expression in gametophytes in a way compatible with ESD. In addition, size-related patterns of sexual expression were consistent with the size-advantage model, because female function benefited more from a larger size than did male function. Finally, the sex switch threshold size was variable and decreased with increasing stress, a result predicted by age and size to maturity models but seldom empirically tested before.