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

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