Post-copulatory sexual selection in the form of sperm competition is known to influence the evolution of male reproductive proteins in mammals. The relationship between sperm competition and regulatory evolution, however, remains to be explored. Protamines and transition nuclear proteins are involved in the condensation of sperm chromatin and are expected to affect the shape of the sperm head. A hydrodynamically efficient head allows for fast swimming velocity and, therefore, more competitive sperm. Previous comparative studies in rodents have documented a significant association between the level of sperm competition (as measured by relative testes mass) and DNA sequence evolution in both the coding and promoter sequences of protamine 2. Here, we investigate the influence of sexual selection on protamine and transition nuclear protein mRNA expression in the testes of eight mouse species that differ widely in levels of sperm competition. We also examined the relationship between relative gene expression levels and sperm head shape, assessed using geometric morphometrics. We found that species with higher levels of sperm competition express less protamine 2 in relation to protamine 1 and transition nuclear proteins. Moreover, there was a significant association between relative protamine 2 expression and sperm head shape. Reduction in the relative abundance of protamine 2 may increase the competitive ability of sperm in mice, possibly by affecting sperm head shape. Changes in gene regulatory sequences thus seem to be the basis of the evolutionary response to sexual selection in these proteins.
- Received December 23, 2013.
- Accepted February 27, 2014.
- © 2014 The Author(s) Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.