In what could be termed a truly seminal discovery, researchers have shown that when females are more promiscuous, males have to work harder -- at the genetic level, that is. More specifically, they determined that a protein controlling semen viscosity evolves more rapidly in primate species with promiscuous females than in monogamous species. The finding demonstrates that sexual competition among males is evident at the molecular level, as well as at behavioral and physiological levels.
The researchers, led by Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator Bruce Lahn at the University of Chicago, published their findings in the November 7, 2004, issue of Nature Genetics. Lahns group studied semenogelin, a major protein in the seminal fluid that controls the viscosity of semen immediately following ejaculation. In some species of primates, it allows semen to remain quite liquid after ejaculation, but in others, semenogelin molecules chemically crosslink with one another, increasing the viscosity of semen. In some extreme cases, semenogelins effects on viscosity are so strong that the semen becomes a solid plug in the vagina. According to Lahn, such plugs might serve as a sort of molecular "chastity belt" to prevent fertilization by the sperm of subsequent suitors, though they might also prevent semen backflow to increase the likelihood of fertilization.
Lahn and his colleagues compared the SEMG2 gene, which contains the blueprint for semenogelin, from a variety of primates. They began by sequencing the SEMG2 gene in humans, chimpanzees, pygmy chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, gibbons, macaques, colobus monkeys, and spider monkeys. These species were chosen because they represent all the major mating systems, including those in which one female copulates with one male in a fertile period (such as gorillas and gibbons); those in which females copulate highly promiscuously (such as chimpanzees and macaques); and those in which mating practices fall somewhere in between (such as orangutans where a female will copulate with the dominant male, but may also copulate with other males opportunistically).
Jennifer Michalowski | EurekAlert!
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