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Title: Post-Transcriptional Mechanisms Respond Rapidly to Ecologically Relevant Thermal Fluctuations During Temperature-Dependent Sex Determination
Synopsis An organism’s ability to integrate transient environmental cues experienced during development into molecular and physiological responses forms the basis for adaptive shifts in phenotypic trajectories. During temperature-dependent sex determination (TSD), thermal cues during discrete periods in development coordinate molecular changes that ultimately dictate sexual fate and contribute to patterns of inter- and intra-sexual variation. How these mechanisms interface with dynamic thermal environments in nature remain largely unknown. By deploying thermal loggers in wild nests of the American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) over two consecutive breeding seasons, we observed that 80% of nests exhibit both male- and female-promoting thermal cues during the thermosensitive period, and of these nests, all exhibited both male- and female-promoting temperatures within the span of a single day. These observations raise a critical question—how are opposing environmental cues integrated into sexually dimorphic transcriptional programs across short temporal scales? To address this question, alligator embryos were exposed to fluctuating temperatures based on nest thermal profiles and sampled over the course of a daily thermal fluctuation. We examined the expression dynamics of upstream genes in the temperature-sensing pathway and find that post-transcriptional alternative splicing and transcript abundance of epigenetic modifier genes JARID2 and KDM6B respond rapidly to thermal fluctuations more » while transcriptional changes of downstream effector genes, SOX9 and DMRT1, occur on a delayed timescale. Our findings reveal how the basic mechanisms of TSD operate in an ecologically relevant context. We present a hypothetical hierarchical model based on our findings as well as previous studies, in which temperature-sensitive alternative splicing incrementally influences the epigenetic landscape to affect the transcriptional activity of key sex-determining genes. « less
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Integrative Organismal Biology
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National Science Foundation
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  1. Abstract

    Many ectotherms rely on temperature cues experienced during development to determine offspring sex. The first descriptions of temperature‐dependent sex determination (TSD) were made over 50 years ago, yet an understanding of its adaptive significance remains elusive, especially in long‐lived taxa.

    One novel hypothesis predicts that TSD should be evolutionarily favoured when two criteria are met—(a) incubation temperature influences annual juvenile survival and (b) sexes mature at different ages. Under these conditions, a sex‐dependent effect of incubation temperature on offspring fitness arises through differences in age at sexual maturity, with the sex that matures later benefiting disproportionately from temperatures that promote juvenile survival.

    The American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) serves as an insightful model in which to test this hypothesis, as males begin reproducing nearly a decade after females. Here, through a combination of artificial incubation experiments and mark‐recapture approaches, we test the specific predictions of the survival‐to‐maturity hypothesis for the adaptive value of TSD by disentangling the effects of incubation temperature and sex on annual survival of alligator hatchlings across two geographically distinct sites.

    Hatchlings incubated at male‐promoting temperatures (MPTs) consistently exhibited higher survival compared to those incubated at female‐promoting temperatures. This pattern appears independent of hatchling sex, as females produced from hormone manipulationmore »at MPT exhibit similar survival to their male counterparts.

    Additional experiments show that incubation temperature may affect early‐life survival primarily by affecting the efficiency with which maternally transferred energy resources are used during development.

    Results from this study provide the first explicit empirical support for the adaptive value of TSD in a crocodilian and point to developmental energetics as a potential unifying mechanism underlying persistent survival consequences of incubation temperature.

    Read the freePlain Language Summaryfor this article on the Journal blog.

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  2. The environment experienced during embryonic development is a rich source of phenotypic variation, as environmental signals have the potential to both inform adaptive plastic responses and disrupt normal developmental programs. Environment-by-embryo interactions are particularly consequential for species with temperature-dependent sex determination, a mode of sex determination common in non-avian reptiles and fish, in which thermal cues during a discrete period of development drive the formation of either an ovary or a testis. Here we examine the impact of thermal variation during incubation in combination with developmental exposure to a common endocrine-disrupting contaminant on fitness-related hatchling traits in the American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis), a species with temperature-dependent sex determination. Using a factorial design, we exposed field-collected eggs to five thermal profiles (three constant temperatures, two fluctuating temperatures) and two environmentally relevant doses of the pesticide metabolite dichlorodiphenyldichloroethylene; and we quantified incubation duration, sex ratios, hatchling morphometric traits, and growth (9–10 days post-hatch). Whereas dichlorodiphenyldichloroethylene exposure did not generally affect hatchling traits, constant and fluctuating temperatures produced diverse phenotypic effects. Thermal fluctuations led to subtle changes in incubation duration and produced shorter hatchlings with smaller heads when compared to the constant temperature control. Warmer, male-promoting incubation temperatures resulted in larger hatchlings withmore »more residual yolk reserves when compared to cooler, female-promoting temperatures. Together, these findings advance our understanding of how complex environmental factors interact with developing organisms to generate phenotypic variation and raise questions regarding the mechanisms connecting variable thermal conditions to responses in hatchling traits and their evolutionary implications for temperature-dependent sex determination.« less
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