Insect glands may illuminate human fertilization process

May 3, 2012

Insect glands are responsible for producing a host of secretions that allow bees to sting and ants to lay down trails to and from their nests. New research from Carnegie scientists focuses on secretions from glands in the reproductive tract that help sperm survive and guide the sperm on the trip to fertilize an egg. The gene that controls the development of these glands in fruit flies provides important information about gland development in all insects, as well as potential clues to similar human reproductive glands. Their work is published this month in Current Biology.

When a female fruit fly receives sperm from a male fruit fly, lubricating secretions in her reproductive tract activate the sperm, store it and guide it to fertilization. Without the aid of these secretions, sperm would not make it to the eggs. Carnegie's Allan Spradling and Jianjun Sun demonstrated that the gene in charge of regulating the development of fruit fly glands is called Hr39. It encodes a steroid receptor protein.

Mutant fruit flies that lack this gene have no such glands formed in the reproductive tract and are infertile. However, their formation could be partially restored with the expression of a mouse gene that encodes an analogous steroid receptor in mammals called Lrh-1. Mutant mice that lack this gene are also infertile.

The work demonstrates that even though it has been millions of years since there was a common ancestor that links fruit flies to mice—and, more generally, insects to mammals—these similar genes are still in charge of at least some of the same functions.

Secretions from reproductive glands in mammals are thought to assist sperm in undergoing similar changes to facilitate fertilization. But studying this process has proved difficult. Knowing that the functions of Hr39 in and Lrh-1 in mammals are similar in this regard will facilitate research.

"The fruit fly work in our paper provides a method for studying the cellular physiology governing this reproductive secretion process more quickly, cheaply and effectively than we had previously thought possible," Spradling said.

Explore further: Mammals, fruit flies: same biological clock

Related Stories

Maelstrom quashes jumping genes

August 11, 2008

Scientists have known for decades that certain genes (called transposons) can jump around the genome in an individual cell. This activity can be dangerous, however, especially when it arises in cells that produce eggs and ...

A new role is hatched for female fruit flies

November 8, 2011

A team of New York University biologists has uncovered a previously unknown role for a set of cells within the female reproductive tract of fruit flies that affects the functioning of sperm and hence fertility. Their discovery, ...

Recommended for you

New insights into the production of antibiotics by bacteria

July 31, 2015

Bacteria use antibiotics as a weapon and even produce more antibiotics if there are competing strains nearby. This is a fundamental insight that can help find new antibiotics. Leiden scientists Daniel Rozen and Gilles van ...

Out of the lamplight

July 31, 2015

The human body is governed by complex biochemical circuits. Chemical inputs spur chain reactions that generate new outputs. Understanding how these circuits work—how their components interact to enable life—is critical ...

Cell aging slowed by putting brakes on noisy transcription

July 30, 2015

Working with yeast and worms, researchers found that incorrect gene expression is a hallmark of aged cells and that reducing such "noise" extends lifespan in these organisms. The team published their findings this month in ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.