One of the most important barriers to reproduction between different species is compatibility between sperm and egg. Biologists are trying to understand the evolution of recognition and compatibility between gametes, but for most species nothing is known about how sperm and egg co-evolve to recognise one-another for fertilization. Recent research shows that this process probably evolves very quickly, probably because of sperm competition between males to fertilise the eggs, and conflict between males and females to get the most out of reproduction. We will examine the compatibility between sperm and egg in Atlantic salmon, which is an ideal model to examine these questions for both pure and applied reasons.
Salmon adults return to the river where they hatched to reproduce. This strategy means that genetic mixing between different populations is low, and biologists have shown that different strains have clear genetic differences, and have evolved specific adaptations for their own population (such as size, spawning age etc). These isolating conditions make salmon a likely species to have evolved differences between populations in sperm and egg compatibility, because of those rapid evolutionary processes just mentioned. We have found evidence for differences in fertilization compatibility between salmon strains, based on quite specific, but important immunity genes. In this project we plan to examine these differences in much more breadth by looking at how sperm and egg fertilization compatibility has changed between different populations, while also applying these theories to a key problem facing wild Atlantic salmon.
Wild Atlantic salmon are an important fish for many reasons, but are unfortunately in severe decline. A major problem facing wild salmon stocks is the escape of farmed salmon, which occurs over the salmon's range at a very high level. Escaped fish can survive, and some make it onto wild salmon spawning grounds. Here they attempt to spawn with wild fish, presenting a major problem: farmed salmon have been domestically-selected for big genetic differences with wild fish. Offspring from farmed and wild salmon reproduction carry inferior farmed genes, and mean that important wild genes in different populations become diluted. Continual release of so many farmed fish could eventually genetically swamp wild genes, possibly permanently losing specifically evolved local adaptations forever. One could imagine a similar situation if domestic dogs were continually released into wolf populations to breed; eventually the pure, wild wolf genes would be lost if release occurred every year at high enough rates.
A vital piece of information in understanding the level of the farmed salmon problem is how fertile are crosses between farmed and wild salmon? Domestication might have altered farmed salmon fertility, either up or down. Research has shown that farmed fish can successfully reproduce with wild fish, but that they are inferior at reproduction. However, exactly HOW inferior are farmed fish, and how does this inferiority vary when reproducing with different wild populations? This information is important to understand the risk of farmed fish to wild stocks. We will answer this question by measuring the fertility of farmed sperm and eggs with wild salmon sperm and eggs. We have developed trials that run fertilisations in controlled conditions, but which mimic the normal function of sperm and egg in a salmon river. We will also examine fertilisation success when wild and farmed sperm mix and compete for a batch of eggs, a process which occurs normally in the wild. We will also measure how fertile farmed salmon are with a close relative, trout, since this is another possible way for farmed hybrids to be produced. Our research will allow us to measure the relative fertility of farmed salmon, thus providing very useful information for governments balancing wild fish conservation with commercially important salmon farming.