Sexual Reproduction

Life Cycles of Sexually Reproducing Organisms

Fertilization and meiosis alternate in sexual life cycles. What happens between these two events depends on the organism’s “reproductive strategy.” The process of meiosis reduces the chromosome number by half. Fertilization, the joining of two haploid gametes, restores the diploid condition. Some organisms have a multicellular diploid stage that is most obvious and only produce haploid reproductive cells. Animals, including humans, have this type of life cycle. Other organisms, such as fungi, have a multicellular haploid stage that is most obvious. Plants and some algae have alternation of generations, in which they have multicellular diploid and haploid life stages that are apparent to different degrees depending on the group.

Nearly all animals employ a diploid-dominant life-cycle strategy in which the only haploid cells produced by the organism are the gametes. Early in the development of the embryo, specialized diploid cells, called germ cells, are produced within the gonads (such as the testes and ovaries). Germ cells are capable of mitosis to perpetuate the germ cell line and meiosis to produce haploid gametes. Once the haploid gametes are formed, they lose the ability to divide again. There is no multicellular haploid life stage. Fertilization occurs with the fusion of two gametes, usually from different individuals, restoring the diploid state (Figure).

This illustration shows the life cycle of animals. Through meiosis, adult males produce haploid (1n) sperm, and adult females produce haploid eggs. Upon fertilization, a diploid (2n) zygote forms, which, through mitosis and cell division, grows into an adult.
In animals, sexually reproducing adults form haploid gametes from diploid germ cells. Fusion of the gametes gives rise to a fertilized egg cell, or zygote. The zygote will undergo multiple rounds of mitosis to produce a multicellular offspring. The germ cells are generated early in the development of the zygote.

Most fungi and algae employ a life-cycle type in which the “body” of the organism—the ecologically important part of the life cycle—is haploid. The haploid cells that make up the tissues of the dominant multicellular stage are formed by mitosis. During sexual reproduction, specialized haploid cells from two individuals—designated the (+) and (−) mating types—join to form a diploid zygote. The zygote immediately undergoes meiosis to form four haploid cells called spores. Although these spores are haploid like the “parents,” they contain a new genetic combination from two parents. The spores can remain dormant for various time periods. Eventually, when conditions are favorable, the spores form multicellular haploid structures through many rounds of mitosis (Figure).

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This illustration shows the life cycle of fungi. In fungi, the diploid (2n) zygospore undergoes meiosis to form haploid (1n) spores. Mitosis of the spores occurs to form hyphae. Hyphae can undergo asexual reproduction to form more spores, or they form plus and minus mating types that undergo nuclear fusion to form a zygospore.
Fungi, such as black bread mold (Rhizopus nigricans), have a haploid multicellular stage that produces specialized haploid cells by mitosis that fuse to form a diploid zygote. The haploid multicellular stage produces specialized haploid cells by mitosis that fuse to form a diploid zygote. The zygote undergoes meiosis to produce haploid spores. Each spore gives rise to a multicellular haploid organism by mitosis. Above, different mating hyphae types (denoted as + and –) join to form a zygospore through nuclear fusion. (credit “zygomycota” micrograph: modification of work by “Fanaberka”/Wikimedia Commons)

If a mutation occurs so that a fungus is no longer able to produce a minus mating type, will it still be able to reproduce?

The third life-cycle type, employed by some algae and all plants, is a blend of the haploid-dominant and diploid-dominant extremes. Species with alternation of generations have both haploid and diploid multicellular organisms as part of their life cycle. The haploid multicellular plants are called gametophytes, because they produce gametes from specialized cells. Meiosis is not directly involved in the production of gametes in this case, because the organism that produces the gametes is already haploid. Fertilization between the gametes forms a diploid zygote. The zygote will undergo many rounds of mitosis and give rise to a diploid multicellular plant called a sporophyte. Specialized cells of the sporophyte will undergo meiosis and produce haploid spores. The spores will subsequently develop into the gametophytes (Figure).

This illustration shows the life cycle of fern plants. The diploid (2n) zygote undergoes mitosis to produce the sphorophyte, which is the familiar, leafy plant. Sporangia form on the underside of the leaves of the sphorophyte. Sporangia undergo meiosis to form haploid (1n) spores. The spores germinate and undergo mitosis to form a multicellular, leafy gametophyte. The gametophyte produces eggs and sperm. Upon fertilization, the egg and sperm form a diploid zygote.
Plants have a life cycle that alternates between a multicellular haploid organism and a multicellular diploid organism. In some plants, such as ferns, both the haploid and diploid plant stages are free-living. The diploid plant is called a sporophyte because it produces haploid spores by meiosis. The spores develop into multicellular, haploid plants that are called gametophytes because they produce gametes. The gametes of two individuals will fuse to form a diploid zygote that becomes the sporophyte. (credit “fern”: modification of work by Cory Zanker; credit “sporangia”: modification of work by "Obsidian Soul"/Wikimedia Commons; credit “gametophyte and sporophyte”: modification of work by “Vlmastra”/Wikimedia Commons)

Although all plants utilize some version of the alternation of generations, the relative size of the sporophyte and the gametophyte and the relationship between them vary greatly. In plants such as moss, the gametophyte organism is the free-living plant and the sporophyte is physically dependent on the gametophyte. In other plants, such as ferns, both the gametophyte and sporophyte plants are free-living; however, the sporophyte is much larger. In seed plants, such as magnolia trees and daisies, the gametophyte is composed of only a few cells and, in the case of the female gametophyte, is completely retained within the sporophyte.

Sexual reproduction takes many forms in multicellular organisms. The fact that nearly every multicellular organism on Earth employs sexual reproduction is strong evidence for the benefits of producing offspring with unique gene combinations, though there are other possible benefits as well.

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