Achieving the long-term goal of formulating a comprehensive understanding of how naturally-occurring genetic changes produce diversity will require the comparative study in many taxa of tractable developmental traits that were acquired as a result of inter-species divergence in developmental genetic pathways. Because many genetic pathways regulating developmental traits are broadly conserved, traits prone to change are ideal traits to study. Surprisingly, sex determination pathways can evolve rapidly, despite the fundamental role of these pathways in instructing an organism to develop as a male or female, a choice having numerous developmental consequences. Changes in sex determination pathways between even closely related species can produce striking developmental differences. A conserved sex determination pathway in Caenorhabditis elegans and C. briggsae regulates sexual development, but different genetic alterations of the pathway independently produced the same sexual developmental trait, hermaphroditism, in both species. These genetic modifications cause females to produce male gametes (sperm) prior to producing female gametes (eggs), resulting in individual self-fertility. The observation that self-fertility independently evolved twice in Caenorhabditis, coupled with the vast resources available for experimental developmental and genetic approaches in Caenorhabditis, makes hermaphroditism an ideal model trait with which to conduct a thorough genetic analysis of the evolutionary genetic architecture underlying developmental change. In order to achieve this objective, one experimental approach of the proposed research is to determine whether a gene known to be necessary for hermaphroditism, fog-2, is sufficient to produce self-fertility when moved as a transgene into true females. In addition, whether a second gene, gld-1, known to be sperm- promoting in C. elegans but egg-promoting in C. briggsae, was involved in gamete sex determination prior to the evolution of hermaphroditism will be identified by eliminating gld-1 function in multiple species of the genus Caenorhabditis using RNA interference and visually assessing resulting germline phenotypes. Together, these approaches will reveal whether one or multiple evolutionary changes were required in C. elegans and C. briggsae to produce hermaphroditism. In anticipation that additional genes necessary for hermaphroditism exist in C. briggsae, novel genes controlling gamete sexual fate in C. briggsae will be identified using a mutagenesis screen for self-sterile worms. Describing the suites of genetic changes responsible for the independent acquisition of hermaphroditism in C. elegans and C. briggsae will contribute to the long-term goal of understanding how genetic pathways evolve to produce developmental change. Additionally, identifying novel genetic factors regulating germ cell sexual fate might improve our understanding of causes of human hermaphroditism and infertility.

Public Health Relevance

Some genes employed in Caenorhabditis to control sperm and egg production are present in humans;one such gene, gld-1, is the only known tumor suppressor in C. elegans. The identification of novel genes involved in gamete sex control in C. briggsae, along with an understanding of the evolution of the germline functions of gld-1, might lead to the identification of genes and genetic networks that regulate human development, fertility, and cancer. Completing this study will improve our understanding of how germ cell development is regulated and how genetic pathways evolve to facilitate phenotypic change.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS)
Postdoctoral Individual National Research Service Award (F32)
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Special Emphasis Panel (ZRG1-F08-E (20))
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Carter, Anthony D
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University of Maryland College Park
Schools of Earth Sciences/Natur
College Park
United States
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Ross, Joseph A; Howe, Dana K; Coleman-Hulbert, Anna et al. (2016) Paternal Mitochondrial Transmission in Intra-Species Caenorhabditis briggsae Hybrids. Mol Biol Evol 33:3158-3160
Chang, Chih-Chiun; Rodriguez, Joel; Ross, Joseph (2015) Mitochondrial-Nuclear Epistasis Impacts Fitness and Mitochondrial Physiology of Interpopulation Caenorhabditis briggsae Hybrids. G3 (Bethesda) 6:209-19
Ross, Joseph A; Koboldt, Daniel C; Staisch, Julia E et al. (2011) Caenorhabditis briggsae recombinant inbred line genotypes reveal inter-strain incompatibility and the evolution of recombination. PLoS Genet 7:e1002174