In marine invertebrates, the frequent evolution of lecithotrophic nonfeeding development from a planktotrophic feeding ancestral developmental mode has involved the repeated, independent acquisition of a large, lipid-rich, usually buoyant egg. To investigate the mechanistic basis of egg-size evolution and the role of maternally provisioned lipids in lecithotrophic development, we identified and quantified the egg lipids in six sea urchin species and five sea star species encompassing four independent evolutionary transformations to lecithotrophy. The small eggs of species with planktotrophic development were dominated by triglycerides with low levels of wax esters, whereas the larger eggs of lecithotrophs contain measurable triglycerides but were dominated by wax ester lipids, a relatively minor egg component of planktotrophs. Comparative analysis by independent contrasts confirmed that after removing the influence of phylogeny, the evolution of a large egg by lecithotrophs was correlated with the conspicuous deposition of wax esters. Increases in wax ester abundance exceeded expectations based solely on changes in egg volume. Wax esters may have roles in providing buoyancy to the egg and for postmetamorphic provisioning. Experimentally reducing the amount of wax esters in blastula stage embryos of the lecithotroph Heliocidaris erythrogramma resulted in a viable but nonbuoyant larvae. During normal development for H. erythrogramma, wax ester biomass remained constant during development to metamorphosis (five days postfertilization), but decreased during juvenile development before complete mouth formation (12 days postfertilization) and was further reduced at 18 days postfertilization. The function of wax esters may be specific to the lecithotrophic developmental mode because there were negligible wax esters present in competent pluteus larvae of Strongylocentrotus drobachiensis, a planktotrophic species. These data suggest that this seminal evolutionary modification, the production of a large egg, has been accomplished in part by the elaboration of a preexisting oogenic component, wax esters. The modification of preexisting oogenic processes may facilitate the observed high frequency of transformations in larval mode in marine invertebrates.
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Vol. 56 • No. 9