The International Journal of Developmental Biology

Int. J. Dev. Biol. 52: 551 - 559 (2008)

Vol 52, Issue 5-6

Special Issue: Fertilization

The structure of sulfated polysaccharides ensures a carbohydrate-based mechanism for species recognition during sea urchin fertilization

Published: 30 November -0001

Ana-Cristina E.S. Vilela-Silva1,2, Noritaka Hirohashi4 and Paulo A.S. Mourão1,3,*

1Laboratório de Tecido Conjuntivo, Hospital Universitário Clementino Fraga Filho, 2Instituto de Ciências Biomédicas, 3Instituto de Bioquímica Médica, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, Rio de Janeiro, RJ, Brazil and 4Genetic Counseling Course, Graduate School of Humanities and Sciences, Ochanomizu University, Japan


The evolution of barriers to inter-specific hybridization is a crucial step in the fertilization of free spawning marine invertebrates. In sea urchins, molecular recognition between sperm and egg ensures species recognition. Here we review the sulfated polysaccharide-based mechanism of sperm-egg recognition in this model organism. The jelly surrounding sea urchin eggs is not a simple accessory structure; it is molecularly complex and intimately involved in gamete recognition. It contains sulfated polysaccharides, sialoglycans and peptides. The sulfated polysaccharides have unique structures, composed of repetitive units of alpha-L-fucose or alpha-L-galactose, which differ among species in the sulfation pattern and/or the position of the glycosidic linkage. The egg jelly sulfated polysaccharides show species-specificity in inducing the sperm acrosome reaction, which is regulated by the structure of the saccharide chain and its sulfation pattern. Other components of the egg jelly do not possess acrosome reaction inducing activity, but sialoglycans act in synergy with the sulfated polysaccharide, potentiating its activity. The system we describe establishes a new view of cell-cell interaction in the sea urchin model system. Here, structural changes in egg jelly polysaccharides modulate cell-cell recognition and species-specificity leading to exocytosis of the acrosome. Therefore, sulfated polysaccharides, in addition to their known functions as growth factors, coagulation factors and selectin binding partners, also function in fertilization. The differentiation of these molecules may play a role in sea urchin speciation.


acrosome reaction, sperm-egg recognition, cell recognition, sulfated fucan, speciation

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