Environmentally induced (co)variance in sperm and offspring phenotypes as a source of epigenetic effects

Author: Dustin J Marshall

Published in: The Journal of Experimental Biology, volume 208, issue 1 (January 2015)


Traditionally, it has been assumed that sperm are a vehicle for genes and nothing more. As such, the only source of variance in offspring phenotype via the paternal line has been genetic effects. More recently, however, it has been shown that the phenotype or environment of fathers can affect the phenotype of offspring, challenging traditional theory with implications for evolution, ecology and human in vitro fertilisation.

Here, I review sources of non-genetic variation in the sperm phenotype and evidence for co-variation between sperm and offspring phenotypes. I distinguish between two environmental sources of variation in sperm phenotype: the pre- release environment and the post-release environment.

Pre-release, sperm phenotypes can vary within species according to male phenotype (e.g. body size) and according to local conditions such as the threat of sperm competition. Post-release, the physicochemical conditions that sperm experience, either when freely spawned or when released into the female reproductive tract, can further filter or modify sperm phenotypes.

I find evidence that both pre- and post-release sperm environments can affect offspring phenotype; fertilisation is not a new beginning – rather, the experiences of sperm with the father and upon release can drive variation in the phenotype of the offspring.

Interestingly, there was some evidence for co-variation between the stress resistance of sperm and the stress resistance of offspring, though more studies are needed to determine whether such effects are widespread.

Overall, it appears that environmentally induced covariation between sperm and offspring phenotypes is non-negligible and further work is needed to determine their prevalence and strength.


Marsall DJ (2015) Environmentally induced (co)variance in sperm and offspring phenotypes as a source of epigenetic effects, The Journal of Experimental Biology, 208(1), 107–113 PDF 458 KB doi:10.1242/jeb.106427