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Environmental and Experimental Botany
Vol. 126, 2016, Pages: 68–75

Sex and heavy metals: Study of sexual dimorphism in response to soil pollution

J. Sánchez Vilas, J.G. Campoy, R. Retuerto

Organisms and Environment Division, Sir Martin Evans Building, Cardiff School of Biosciences, Cardiff University, Cardiff CF10 3AX, UK.


In dioecious plants, males and females often show distinct morphological, physiological and life history traits as result of their different demands for reproduction. Such sexual dimorphism is likely to be accentuated under stressful conditions, such as that imposed by exposure to heavy metals. However little is known about the response of dioecious plants to stress by heavy metals. Here we use the dioecious herb Silene latifolia to investigate the growth and reproduction of males and females growing in soil polluted with either Cu or Cd. We also examined whether the sexes differed in the patterns of metal accumulation in their tissues. Patterns of biomass allocation to reproduction, roots, leaves and shoots (stem and leaves) were compared in male and female S. latifoliaplants that were harvested after growing for 14 weeks in different soil conditions (non-polluted soil, Cu-polluted soil and Cd-polluted soil). In addition, patterns of metal accumulation between the sexes were also compared post-harvest by analysing the metal content in their tissues. Overall, metals decreased plants’ total dry mass allocated to leaves and to roots- particularly in males. Females accumulated more Cu in their tissues. However, this did not seem to correspond with females performing worse (in terms of growth and reproduction) than males when growing in soil polluted with this metal. Despite males and females having similar levels of Cd in their tissues, males seemed to have lower tolerance to this metal, as indicated by a lower total and leaf dry mass than females, and also by a lower number of flowers when growing in Cd-polluted soil. We also found contrasting differences in female seed production due to heavy metals, with number of seeds (but not mass) decreasing with Cu and increasing with Cd. Our results indicate the presence of sexual dimorphism in response to heavy metals, with the sexes differing in both patterns of accumulation and tolerance.

Keywords: Heavy metals; Dioecy; Cost of reproduction; Sexual dimorphism; Silene latifolia.

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