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Their pregnancies have evolved entirely independently of seahorse pregnancy, millions of years apart, and yet we see the same processes occurring. Males produce the sperm the smallest gametes and females produce the eggs the biggest gametes. We even discovered genes allowing seahorse fathers to provide nutrients to their developing embryos. With around one week to go, instead of packing a hospital go-bag, seahorse dads start producing hatching signals. Why would the genes controlling male and female pregnancies be similar? How many offspring can a seahorse dad give birth to? Seahorse dads, just like human mums, need to make sure they can provide oxygen and nutrients to their embryos.
Why would the genes controlling male and female pregnancies be similar? This is the first time that these technologies have been used to examine the full course of pregnancy in any animal. Strikingly, many of the seahorse genes are similar to those in other pregnant animals. All thanks to dad for the birth of juvenile seahorses, here being reared in the laboratory. This is a breakthrough in our understanding of the genetics of seahorse reproduction, although much follow up work is required to definitively test the functions of every one of those genes. This is surprising because pregnant mammals, reptiles and other fish all incubate their embryos inside the female reproductive tract. The hormone oestrogen also gets involved and these combined forces produce cascading genetic signals that produce birth. We even discovered genes allowing seahorse fathers to provide nutrients to their developing embryos. So seahorses, with their bizarre reproductive strategies, still have plenty more to offer evolutionary biologists. We think that this is because gestation presents the same set of complex challenges to the parent, regardless of species. Seahorse dads, just like human mums, need to make sure they can provide oxygen and nutrients to their embryos. Their pregnancies have evolved entirely independently of seahorse pregnancy, millions of years apart, and yet we see the same processes occurring. Seahorse mums still contribute nutrient-rich egg yolks that feed developing embryos, but their responsibility for their offspring ends at mating. In particular, fathers supply energy-rich fats and calcium to allow the embryos to build their tiny skeletons and bony body rings that sit just under the skin. The male releases sperm to fertilise the eggs as they enter, before incubating them for 24 days until they are born. These fish swap the traditional roles of mums and dads as they are the only animals where the males get pregnant. When we examined them in detail, we found genes involved in many different processes. It allowed us to examine the genetic basis of the processes going on inside the pregnant pouch. Seahorse dads even seem to protect embryos from infection, producing antibacterial and antifungal molecules to ward off pathogens. As the embryos take up more room, the pouch begins to stretch, much like the belly of a very pregnant human. But in seahorses, the sperm-producers are also the ones that get pregnant. We took samples from male pouches at different stages of pregnancy and then used new DNA sequencing technologies to assess how pouch gene expression changes. Male seahorses give birth to hundreds of babies after a short pregnancy. How many offspring can a seahorse dad give birth to? Other pouch genes help the males remove wastes produced by the embryo, such as carbon dioxide and nitrogen. Messenger When it comes to bending gender stereotypes, seahorses and their relatives would have to be one of the most extreme examples.
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