Adaptive maternal and paternal effects: gamete plasticity in response to parental stress

Authors: Natasha Jensen, Richard M Allen and Dustin J Marshall

Published in: Functional Ecology , volume 28, issue 3 (June 2014)


Transgenerational phenotypic plasticity is increasingly recognized as an important buffer of environmental change – many studies show that mothers alter the phenotype of their offspring so as to maximize their performance in their local environment. Fewer studies have examined the capacity of parents to alter the phenotype of their gametes to cope with environmental change. In organisms that shed their gametes externally, gametes are extremely vulnerable to local stresses and transgenerational plasticity in the phenotypes of gametes seems likely in this group.

In a marine tubeworm, Hydroides diramphus, we manipulated the salinity environment that mothers and fathers experienced before reproduction and then examined the phenotype of their gametes, as well as the performance of those gametes and the resultant larvae in different salinities.

We found strong evidence for gamete plasticity – both mothers and fathers adaptively adjust the phenotype of their gametes to maximize the performance of those gametes in the salinity regime experienced by their parents. Parents were quite flexible in the phenotype of gametes that they produced: they could switch the salinity tolerance of their gametes back and forth depending on their most recent experience.

Gamete plasticity was not without risks, however. We observed strong trade-offs in performance when gametes experienced an environment that did not match that of their parents. These effects of the parental environment persist for the duration of the larval phase such that larvae may not be able to disperse to environments that do not match their parents. Gamete plasticity may therefore represent an important source of phenotype–environment mismatches.

Gamete plasticity may represent an important mechanism for coping with environmental change and an important source of maternal and paternal effects in species with external fertilization. Studies that seek to predict the impacts of stresses that persist across generations (e.g. ocean acidification) should include parental exposures to the stress of interest.

Full paper

Jensen N, Allen RM, Marshall DJ (2014) Adaptive maternal and paternal effects: gamete plasticity in response to parental stress. Functional Ecology, 28: 724–733 PDFPDF 373 KB doi: 10.1111/1365-2435.12195